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2017 Psychonomic Society Collaborative Symposium
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Applications of Embodied Cognition to STEM Education

20th European Society for Cognitive Psychology Conference (ESCoP)
3-6 September 2017 | Potsdam, Germany

Nora NewcombeOrganizer:
Nora S. Newcombe
Temple University, USA

Theorists of embodied cognition postulate that the brain must be understood to function in the context of the physical body and that, reciprocally, engaging the body alters the function of the brain (i.e., affects thinking). This idea has led to insights in basic cognitive science – such as the ubiquity of embodied metaphors, or how gesture facilitates learning and thinking. Embodied cognition has thus provided effective learning tools that may be especially useful in the STEM disciplines, which rely upon concepts that are both richly detailed descriptions of the physical world and quite abstract (e.g., the notion of a limit in mathematics). Embodied tools to cut to the core of such ideas but also support abstraction might make STEM disciplines more accessible. Such tools include unscripted, scripted or elicited gestures or bodily experiences. Yet, abstraction is also required, so language may be used in conjunction with such techniques. The purpose of this symposium is to explore how embodied cognition might be applied to augment STEM learning. The papers cover various disciplines including mathematics, geoscience and chemistry, and span age groups from elementary school through university. This material shows the reach of cognitive research across the theory-translation continuum.

The papers presented in this symposium are a selection from a special issue of Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, the open-access journal of the Psychonomic Society that publishes use-inspired basic research (i.e., fundamental research that grows from hypotheses about real-world problems).

Mathematical Insight and Proof via Action-Cognition Transduction and Grounded Language
Mitchell J. NathanMitchell J. Nathan
University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA

We present a theory of grounded and embodied mathematical cognition (GEMC) that draws on action-cognition transduction for advancing understanding of how the body can support mathematical reasoning. GEMC proposes that participants’ actions serve as inputs capable of driving the cognition-action system toward associated cognitive states through a process of transduction that promotes valuable mathematical insights by eliciting dynamic depictive gestures that enact spatiotemporal properties of mathematical entities. Our focus here is on pre-college geometry proof production. GEMC suggests that action alone is insufficient for valid proof production if not grounded in language systems for propositionalizing general properties of objects and space that are under consideration. GEMC is used to guide the design of a video game learning environment that elicits dynamic gestures through game-based directed actions to promote students’ mathematical insights and informal proofs. GEMC generates several experimental hypotheses that contribute to theories of embodied cognition and the design of STEM education interventions: dynamic gesture production predicts mathematical insight; dynamic gesture production can be elicited through directed actions; and pedagogical language explicitly linking directed actions to the mathematical conjectures improves student proof performance by increasing production of task-relevant dynamic gestures. Preliminary findings with students grades 6 through 11 (N = 35) using a prototype video game reveal the potential of using GEMC to derive interventions intended to improve STEM education, as well as the complex challenges of connecting research to practice.
      Candace Walkington, Southern Methodist University

RoomQuake: Using Embodiment and Grounding in Elementary School Science
Allison J. JaegerAllison J. Jaeger
Temple University, USA

Spatial skills predict learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and may be especially important for understanding concepts that require visualizing, manipulating or animating spatial information. Because of the recent emphasis on STEM, it is important to identify conditions that may allow students with weaker spatial skills to succeed in STEM disciplines. Desktop simulations, while useful in representing the scientific phenomena, do not embody or contextualize the spatial aspects of the phenomena. Alternatively, Embedded Phenomena are classroom-based simulation technologies that combine embodiment and grounded experience to support learning in science. The current study investigated the effectiveness of an Embedded Phenomena activity for learning about earthquakes, and whether the effectiveness was impacted by individual differences in spatial skills. In the embedded condition, 15 earthquake events were simulated within the classroom space and students enacted the computation of epicenters with strings and their bodies. In the non-embedded condition, students completed the same activities with the same instruction, however the epicenter computation activities were done on maps and not with students’ bodies. Results demonstrated an overall benefit for the embedded condition such that greater learning gains were found compared to the non-embedded condition. Additionally, while spatial skill did constrain learning in the non-embedded condition, the effect of spatial skills was reduced when the activity was embedded and enacted within classroom space. These results suggests that grounding an activity in an embodied experience may lessen the demands of mentally representing the phenomena, which may be critical for supporting understanding for low-spatial students.
      Jennifer Wiley, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA
      Tom Moher, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA

How to Get the Point: Spatial Language and Gesture Can Help Teach Topographic Maps
Steven WeisbergSteven M. Weisberg

University of Pennsylvania, USA

Representing 3D information is challenging. Our primary representational tools - diagrams, language and gesture - each have unique strengths that aid in representing 3D and spatiotemporal information, but each also has significant weaknesses. Here, we explored how spatial language and gesture influences the information processed from topographic maps. We use topographic maps that represent 3D terrain information using 2D contour lines, compressing the 3D information onto 2D space by discretizing metric information about the Z-dimension and providing it symbolically. In a set of studies, we assessed the effectiveness of spatial language and gesture for conveying aspects of topographic map content. In one study, we observed that participants who used the term elevation (emphasizing the symbolic information about the Z-dimension) performed better. In another study, we found that point-and-trace gestures highlighting the contour lines led to better topographic map comprehension than basic textbook-type instruction; instruction with iconic gestures, which represent topological features such as hills and valleys, did not provide a significant boost. Combining spatial language and gesture in a third study revealed an interaction between spatial language and gesture. In instruction, key phrases focused either on visualizing the contour lines and imagining the terrain in 3D (Visualizing condition), or on analyzing the contour lines to determine how specific numerical values of elevation change (Analyzing condition). Tested on novel maps, participants differentially succeeded on test items requiring either visualizing shapes or analyzing elevation. Results augment our understanding of how communication modalities work together and how spatial information can best be conveyed.
      Kinnari Atit, Northwestern University, USA
      Thomas F. Shipley, Temple University, USA
      Nora S. Newcombe, Temple University, USA

Supporting Learning about Molecular Structure Through Embodied Actions
Mike StieffMike Stieff

University of Illinois at Chicago, USA

Theories of embodied cognition reject wholly computational models of cognition to assert that cognition is grounded in the human form and supported by motoric action. While research continues to explore the validity of this assertion, learning environments and pedagogies informed by theories of embodied cognition have begun to demonstrate efficacy. These designs have proven to be particularly effective for facilitating learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Here, we present evidence that learner-produced gestures are specifically effective for supporting spatial thinking in science. In two studies we examined the effectiveness of choreographed gestures for helping students learn how to identify complex spatial relationships in molecular structures and to represent those relationships in two-dimensional diagrams. In Study 1, we demonstrate that students trained to make gestures that represent spatial relationships and perform spatial operations make significant gains understanding stereochemistry concepts. In Study 2, we demonstrate that these gains result specifically from motoric action by learners while learning about spatial relationships. Together, the results indicate that (1) motoric actions and not static gestures benefit spatial thinking and (2) this benefit results from using motoric actions during learning as opposed to using them while problem solving. We use these findings to propose new design principles for learning technologies that couple motoric actions with dynamic visualizations to improve learning outcomes in STEM domains.
      Dane DeSutter, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA




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