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Science and Technology

Exploradio - The Kinect connection

Researchers at the University of Akron are out to prove that a picture may be worth a thousand words in modern education.
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
The Kinect team at the University of Akron incorporate the 3-D gaming with system science education. From left, psychology professor Phil Allen, biomedical engineer Yang Yun, and computer scientist Tom Xaio.
Courtesy of U. of Akron
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Some educators believe analog education -  think chalk boards and lectures -  is failing to reach a generation of kids raised on high-tech video games and virtual worlds. In this week’s Exploradio, we meet a team of researchers at the University of Akron who believe a 3-D gaming consul can help bridge education’s digital divide.

Exploradio - The Kinect connection

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Kinetic education

Tech lovers in California gasped as the latest Xbox rolled out last year.

Microsoft spent half-a-billion dollars promoting its new motion-gaming system.  The technology is impressive;  the Xbox Kinect has a 3-D motion sensing camera that allows users to control the computer with slight movements of their hands, or even ‘getting down’ with their whole bodies.

Psychology professor Phil Allen is one of three University of Akron researchers who’s excited about the Kinect -- not because of the latest Michael Jackson dance game, but because of its potential to teach kids about science. 

“The world as we’ve taught it before is static. The world though isn’t static, it’s dynamic. It’s relations, how we interact with our environment.  People are interacting with their environment with the Kinect system.”

Allen says young kids learn better when they’re allowed to move around, and that doesn’t stop in primary school.

“It happens your whole life, and when you take the motoric part out, you take part of the learning experience out.  And we want to put it back in.”

Computer scientist Tom Xaio is the second member of the team.  He demonstrates how the Kinect allows him to make robots dance on a projected screen.

“And I’m just waving my hands in the air. It’s total hands-free control of the computer.”

Xaio is writing programs that take advantage of the Kinect’s movement interface.  He imagines a game where students learn how viruses attack cells by BEING the virus, and BEING the cell in a motion-filled video .

“So now you become part of the material, you interact with the material.  You use your hand to open up a cancer cell to examine what’s inside.”

Stimulating the visual brain 

Biomedical engineer Yang Yun is the third member of the Akron team.  He says it makes sense to present visual information such as how a virus attacks a cell by using visual technology.

“Every student, every person, has a visual part of the brain. And by directly stimulating that part of the brain using this technology, we hope to make the learning more efficient.”

The team plans to study how well students learn a series of science subjects using modules created for the Kinect compared with traditional teaching methods.

How much students retain will be measured using written tests. But in a second part of the study, psychologist Phil Allen will use special MRI scans to measure changes within the students’ brains.

After about six months of learning through computer projections, Allen expects that he’ll see changes in the part of the brain that processes visual information.

“This measures the communication networks in the brain; they’re called the white matter tracks of these neural circuits. And we can measure the density of them before and after the intervention.”

The team is developing four separate teaching modules.  Then, with help from a National Science Foundation grant, the University of Akron researchers will give each of three local high schools six laptops, projectors and Kinect consuls.  

The schools are Akron's Firestone High School and North High School, and McKinley High School in Canton.  That part of the project will get underway late next year, the development of the four teaching modules starts in January.

Later they’ll test whether today’s kids learn better with the high-tech Kinect or the traditional chalkboard. 

I’m Jeff St.Clair with this week’s Exploradio.

Related Links & Resources
Other uses of the Kinect...

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