Researchers promote STEM education through online learning and 3-D models

The squeals and giggles of children’s laughter fill the middle school classroom as students sit with eyes transfixed on the small, blue objects in their hands. Eager with curiosity, the students rotate the hard pieces of plastic, running their fingers along the intricate ridges and folds.

But it’s not a toy during recess that’s earned the coveted attention of these young scholars. Instead, these students are learning about and exploring the human brain via 3-D printed models as part of a Penn State research project. 

Funded by the Social Science Research Institute, the Brain3M project aims to enhance middle school science education through virtual and 3-D printed brain models. (The “3M” stands for mobile devices, magnetic resonance imaging and 3-D models.)

In addition to 3-D printing technology, the project also uses an interactive online learning platform, which houses virtual 3-D structure models and descriptions of the brain, as well as eye-catching photos and diagrams to explain and illustrate complex concepts.

“The idea for the project came about as a way to inspire the next generation of students to learn how the brain works while encouraging them to explore brain research in the future,” said the study’s principal investigator, Ping Li, a professor of psychology and associate director of the Institute for CyberScience.

To expand on this idea, Li collaborated with Victoria Braithwaite — a professor of fisheries and biology and co-director of the Center for Brain, Behavior and Cognition — to form a research group dedicated to exploring multimodal learning methods for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

Generating engagement

The team envisioned a tailored learning platform that would allow students to click through and explore a virtual brain at their own pace.

Before testing this platform in the classroom, the team recruited Fan Zhang — a recent master’s degree graduate from the College of Information Sciences and Technology — to help bring the interactive online module to life.

“We first talked about the overall goal of the website and what it should look like, then we discussed the actual learning objectives,” Zhang said. “Designing the Brain3M website was a lot different than designing a printed lesson — it was more about designing the experience the user is going to have.”

To test this experience, team members Jennifer Legault, a graduate student in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, and Lauren Chaby, who recently earned her neuroscience doctoral degree, sought feedback from local middle school students.

“We’ve instructed both at Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School and the Science-U summer camp at Penn State University Park campus,” Legault said. “We taught all participants the same two lessons in two different ways: each student learned one lesson via the Brain3M website and the other lesson through a PowerPoint in a classroom setting.”

Although the sample sizes in these preliminary tests were too small to garner definitive evidence, the group’s initial findings suggest that while there is a broad range of individual differences in learning, students were excited and more engaged thanks to the Brain3M platform. (It also didn’t hurt that participating students in both groups received 3-D printed brain keychains as a souvenir.)

“More than 80 percent of the participants said they would want to use this website again to learn about the brain, and that’s pretty cool given the fact that interest in STEM fields is not always as high as we'd like,” Legault said.

Expanding possibilities

According to Legault, one of the greatest potential benefits of the Brain3M project is the opportunity to promote individualized learning.

“The students can click on any parts of the brain in any order they want, so we’re really letting them make their own decisions about their learning,” Legault said. “This kind of active learning has been shown to be more effective, and the kids also seemed to like that they could take control of their own learning experience and go at their own pace.”

In the future, the team is interested in looking at the relationship between the outcome of the Brain3M project and additional spatial learning objectives.

“Learning about the brain involves a lot of spatial components — you have to learn about the overall size and shape of the brain structures, their relative locations to other structures and how those locations might change depending on how you rotate the brain,” Legault said. “So if we’re able to show that students’ performance in learning about the brain corresponds with their spatial abilities, then this project could also help them learn about another topic that involves spatial components.”

For Li, these broad applications across STEM fields are a driving force behind the Brain3M project.

“This project really exemplifies the collaborative work of modern science in that it has a lot of components of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, but it also involves education, digital learning, big data and 3-D modeling,” Li said. “To understand something as complex as the human brain, it really requires us to go beyond traditional boundaries of what we do in our own labs. That’s what gets me up in the morning and really makes me excited about this.”

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Last Updated April 21, 2017