Noel Enyedy: Motion-Tracking Technology Enhances K-12 Learning

Recent NSF-funded projects with UCLA Lab School and Lincoln High School, focus on using motion tracking technology to enhance learning.

With the realization that art education can complement math and science learning, classrooms have begun to add an “A” to “STEM,” creating the much more active noun of “STEAM.” Among the faculty at UCLA’s Department of Education who see STEAM’s enhancement to classroom pedagogy is Noel Enyedy, associate professor of education, who has been recognized with the 2013-2014 Bobbie and Mark Greenfield Faculty Award for Applied Research in Learning and Achievement, for his innovative ways of combining basic scientific principles, technology, and elements of art with the creation of a collaborative teaching and learning environment.

Two of Enyedy’s recent projects, both funded by the National Science Foundation, utilize motion tracking technology to enhance learning.  One project seeks to illustrate principles of physics by allowing students to use pretend play to depict the effects of force. The other project is meant to build a sense of civic engagement by having students create digital interactive “murals” that artistically convey urban planning issues that are facing the students’ own neighborhoods.

Noel Enyedy's Cyber Mural project enables viewers to experience the effects of gentrification, such as the availability of public parks vs. elite spaces like golf courses in a community, using motion-tracking sensors. Photo by Ren Rong
Noel Enyedy’s Cyber Mural project enables viewers to experience the effects of gentrification, such as the availability of public parks vs. elite spaces like golf courses in a community, using motion-tracking sensors. Photo by Ren Rong

“I’m learning about how people learn from social interaction, from talking to each other,” Enyedy says. “I do a lot of work in educational technology, [which] sparks a conversation between a teacher and a student, or between students. It provides some experiential base to anchor that conversation and drive it in a productive direction.”

Enyedy, who teaches in the Urban Schooling Division at UCLA Ed and IS, says that there are deep parallels between children’s socio-dramatic play and scientific modeling. With his project, “Science Through Technology-Enhanced Play” (STEP), he was able to help 1st and 2nd graders at UCLA Lab School to use their “pretend play” skills to learn about physics principles like Newtonian force in motion or life in a beehive. Enyedy says that the ability for young students to play roles in pretend play that relate to what they think will happen, creates an inquiry-based learning environment that expands the resources that students can use to learn.

“While engaging in pretend play about what they think is going to happen within a scientific system, students take on character roles, like the role of a ball or the role of a bee,” he says. “The parallels are that in scientific modeling, you’re trying to often represent a system in terms of a series of rules: an object in motion stays in motion. When you’re playing house, if you’re playing the mother, you act by the rules that a mother would act in a situation,” says Enyedy. “When kids play, they don’t [always] know the rules of the system; they’re engaged in a type of inquiry. Pretend play is directed at a system that they don’t understand. They don’t understand all the rules of parenthood. That’s what we want in science too, this inquiry-oriented learning.”

Using augmented reality—technology that overlays symbolic elements over a video feed of the real world—Enyedy and his research team of former student Joshua Danish, of the University of Indiana, and Jeff Burke and Fabian Wagmister at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, developed ways for students to take part in simulations of force, with the ability to control simulation using motion tracking of their own bodies. The computer also has the ability to take over the program, and run a simulation according to the actual laws of physics.

Enyedy has secured another NSF grant for $1 million to continue the study at UCLA Lab School, and has been in discussions with the Ministry of Education in Buenos Aires, which is interested in adopting his work in this area.

“UCLA Lab School is great. They have great teachers, and flexible, innovative staff,” says Enyedy. “But it would be great to see how it can be implemented in a really different environment.”

Enyedy’s other motion tracking project the Cyber Mural, deals with slightly more imprecise science of socioeconomic change. Working again with Burke and Wagmister, he developed interactive “murals” to depict  urban planning decisions facing  the neighborhood  of Lincoln High School, a math and science magnet near L.A.’s Chinatown. The ongoing project, which has undergone some redevelopment since its inception last year, instructs students to gather photographs of their community, including historic images and photos that they had taken themselves, to create digital environments that illustrate the effects of the area’s impending redevelopment and gentrification. Viewers , using the motion tracking sensors, would be able to make the mural change and experience, for example, the effect of gentrification on the availability of public parks vs. elite spaces like golf courses.

“We worked in an afterschool setting with kids, to get them involved as artists, activists, and to make these digital murals to comment on urban planning issues that are potentially going to affect their neighborhood,” Enyedy says. “They decided what concepts were relevant to these images and urban planning issues [such as] the income of the people who live in the community and their social connectedness.”

Enyedy says that in both interactive projects, the creation of a learning community superceded the platform of technology, where a collective process of inquiry and problem-solving reinforce the principles taught.

“With the Cyber Mural, a group of kids worked on a collaborative piece of art that expresses their collective understanding,” Enyedy says. “Similarly, in the STEP program, UCLA Lab School students had to decide collectively what the rule for adding forces is. They go through an inquiry process where they figure out what the rules are, watch the simulations, and then change the context and what happens there.”

Enyedy also emphasizes the role that art education plays in these projects, pointing out that in utilizing the technology of interactive “play,” students also had to make creative decisions on how best to illustrate concepts, whether through creating photographic images or coming up with iconography to represent the difference between levels of physical force and their effects on matter.

“There is a lot of thinking about the way in which multiple representations and multiple media, and understanding in different modalities and medium [can] combine to be really productive,” Enyedy says. “Different media can be laminated onto one another and produce powerful ways of reasoning and problem-solving.”