Exploring the new potential for embodied and kinaesthetic learning,
using programmable objects and robotics in mathematics education

The use of embodied and kinaesthetic learning is unquestioned in primary education, yet these are largely underused in secondary education despite considerable evidence in the research literature of their importance for conceptual understanding in mathematics. There are rich realms of geometry to be learned in three-dimensional Euclidean space, and “non-Euclidean” spaces, such as the surface of a sphere. It is also an area rich in potential for physical exploration with our bodies, which is based on kinaesthetic thinking, by which we mean thinking that is mediated by real or imagined bodily motion. Robotic devices especially raise the potential for embodied learning, i.e, having physical and systematically controllable objects located in the same space and time as the learner. A core problem for physically-rooted learning is that as the abstract conceptual content of education increases, the intellectual distance from physical activity increases, and it becomes a significant challenge to maintain the connections for learners.

An inspiration for our approach is the “Turtle Geometry” that was developed in the 1970s as part of the Logo programming and robotic environment; a turtle is a physical or virtual device that has a definite position in the plane, and a heading. One of the great insights in the design of Turtle Geometry was the recognition of “body syntonic” learning: that (young) children learn through the use of their bodies, and therefore a computational learning environment could simultaneously allow children to use body syntonicity to negotiate with the learning environment and promote them towards thinking about and through abstract, programmed structures.

This project proposes to extend this research by harnessing a new kind of digital device, the “programmable object”, to the learning and teaching of mathematical concepts at secondary and late primary levels. We will make use of a device called the Sun SPOT, an experimental 'Small Programmable Object Technology' being developed by Sun Microsystems. It is a small device containing a range of sensors (3-axis accelerometer, temperature and light sensors), which can communicate via wireless with other SPOTs, computers and other devices. The hardware is fully programmable and expandable via a set of digital and analogue input/output connectors. We were awarded SPOT hardware by Sun's Project Sun SPOT to carry out exploratory research (see SPOT Turtles project: A Next-generation Approach for the Kinaesthetic Learning of Geometry).

Roamer and the forthcoming RoamerToo, developed by Valiant Technology, are the most widely used educational robots used in schools today, based on the ideas of Logo and programmable “turtles”. We will explore the learning possibilities that result from integrating the SPOT and the RoamerToo.

SPOT and Roamer

New kinds of collaboration become possible. Because these devices can communicate with one another, students can work together to explore ways of using several devices simultaneously to explore a learning problem. The easy customisation and programming of programmable object devices means that “rapid prototyping” of learning and teaching activities becomes possible for researchers and teachers without special, expensive resources and expertise. Thus a key aim of this proposal is to undertake a piece of short, exploratory research with the help of 2 or 3 schools to establish the potential uses for such devices. The emphasis is not on building hardware and software from scratch, but developing existing designs for these towards application in the school curriculum, and identifying key principles for using these devices.

A general challenge of three-dimensional thinking with ICT support is that whereas intuitive understanding of space is extremely powerful (3-D space is “where we live”), the representation of 3-D space on 2-D computer displays is fraught with confusions. A key research question is to investigate the interface devices, representations and metaphors that will support learners to make connections between their kinaesthetic sense in space and mathematical computational learning environments “on screen”.

Research Team and Collaborators

Dr Philip Kent, Researcher
Dr Brock Craft, Researcher
Dr Nicolas van Labeke, consultant - LKL/Birkbeck College
Mr Dave Catlin, consultant - CEO, Valiant Technology

This work is supported by a research grant from Becta, under the Harnessing Technology Grant Scheme.

We are very grateful to both Sun Microsystems and Valiant Technology for providing to us the hardware being used in this research.

Website last updated: 31 May 2008 by PK