The game is “disease transmission.” Players try to keep their population of avatars alive in a simulated outbreak situation, factoring conditions like population size, availability of medical and food resources, and bacterial versus viral disease modes.

No, this isn’t the latest technology the Centers for Disease Control is using to help combat the spread of infectious disease. (Though it probably could be.) It’s a game scenario created by SMALLab Learning, whose technology is being used in an increasing number of schools in the Pittsburgh area.

Created by a team of researchers and K-12 teachers associated with Arizona State University, SMALLab—which stands for Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab—is a kind of 3-D game interface that uses a ceiling-mounted projector, motion-sensor cameras, and a computer to create a kinesthetic learning environment for students.

In these specially constructed embodied learning spaces, students learn by play or physical movement. Students, or players, move around on a 15-by-15-foot foam-rubber mat, similar to a game board, and interact with physical objects and wireless peripherals such as wands. The lab’s motion-capture system sends information on these interactions to the computer, where custom software analyzes student performance and provides real-time feedback and responses related to whatever scenario the teacher has selected—such as disease outbreak, particle interaction, or chemistry lab.

“For example,” the SMALLab website explains, “as students are learning about a physics concept like velocity, they can hear the sound of their actions getting faster. They can see graphs and equations that represent their motions in real time. They can feel the weight of an object in their hand as they interact in real physical space.”

This immersive technology draws on techniques from computer gaming and human-computer interaction, and it allows for collaborative learning. Imagine stepping inside a Wii game and, instead of battling zombies, you experiment with titration in a virtual chemistry lab or explore light wavelength and color. An increasing number of schools throughout the country and in the Pittsburgh area are using this technology to help students strengthen problem-solving and STEM skills in a fun and engaging way.

There’s good evidence that active learning environments enhance knowledge acquisition. According to a National Center for Biotechnology Information publication on embodied learning, “Motor information accrued by the body can affect learning and development by grounding mental representations in motor areas of the cortex and structuring associated perception.”

The authors wrote that applying these theories to science education has exciting potential.

This technology also seems to be a natural fit for the Pittsburgh region, with its deep resources in digital media and gaming.

SMALLab has been in place at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, for two years. A grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and the Grable Foundation helped fund the technology, which is costly to install and requires a 25-by-25-foot classroom with two power outlets and an Ethernet connection.

Students at Elizabeth Forward have been using the lab to learn about angles while manipulating virtual mirrors. They’ve also been using the lab to hone critical-thinking skills while playing a game involving moving brightly colored virtual spheres around the play space.

Recently, Elizabeth Forward joined Pittsburgh Public Schools and McKeesport Area, West Allegheny, and Seneca Valley school districts to create the Pittsburgh SMALLab Consortium to develop software for the SMALLab, in partnership with the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. The agreement, supported by a $56,000 Grable Foundation grant, will extend the reach of this technology to approximately 25,000 students.

“We try to talk about problem-solving. So many of the kids don’t understand,” Todd Keruskin, Elizabeth Forward School District’s assistant superintendent of schools, told TribLive. “You put them in an environment like this, and every kid is engaged.”