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Posted: September 9, 2009
Avatars to be used in new science education software
(Nanowerk News) Virtual characters, or avatars, will be part of a new learning tool designed to attract and retain young European science students. An EU-funded project is developing a programme that emphasises teaching scientific concepts in an interactive environment. The main purpose of the three-year project is to get students more involved in the learning process and to capture their interest in science.
The DYNALEARN ('Engaging and informed tools for learning conceptual system knowledge') project is funded with EUR 2.45 million through the 'Information and communication technologies' Theme of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). It is coordinated by the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and pools the efforts of researchers from universities in Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Germany, Israel, Spain and the UK.
Increasingly, European students are choosing not to pursue scientific and technical studies, which is a matter of some concern for many areas of industry. Reasons for the decline range from a lack of variety in the way science is taught to the tendency for programmes to focus on transmitting facts without underscoring the concepts behind them. Another important factor is the common perception that science is more complex and difficult to grasp than other disciplines.
DYNALEARN partners are working to create an interactive learning environment that lets students build 'conceptual models', either individually or as a group, of the subjects they are trying to learn. Using well established technologies in a new way, the partners are putting together a science-oriented learning system that can react to individual knowledge needs.
One part of the approach is to use 'personified agent technology', in which a virtual character (called an avatar), which is often customised by the user, interacts with people using a repertoire of highly social behaviours. Well-known examples of avatars include voice profiles in GPS navigation devices and characters in video games.
Using avatars, the partners believe, will stimulate the social aspect of learning by getting students to collaborate and compete with one another. The programme will make use of semantic technology to allow students to automatically compare their results against models created by other students and teachers. This will give them the information they need to improve their models.
The new tool will emphasise visual, diagrammatic representations of concepts. DYNALEARN partners believe this will help students to articulate, analyse and communicate their ideas; this in turn will help the programme or teacher to identify gaps in understanding or knowledge and respond accordingly. The system will also make use of existing Web technologies that can find and match students who are working on similar ideas, which could provide opportunities for individualised training.
In its initial phase, the programme will be tailored to address key topics in environmental science. After evaluation it will be fine-tuned to fit existing curricula in this field and will draw on case studies.
The main purpose of DYNALEARN's learning environment is to encourage young Europeans to engage in science learning, and to empower students by helping them to understand the concepts behind complex scientific topics. The project has been motivated by the dearth of appropriate, effective and up-to-date learning tools available to science teachers in Europe.
It is hoped that the technology developed by DYNALEARN will appeal to students and become a popular teaching and learning tool for a number of subjects in both secondary and higher education.