This fall, an already robust partnership between SMALLab, the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), and Pittsburgh area schools is expanding.

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 the coming year, CMU students will work with teachers from eight local districts to create SMALLab games and lessons tailored to their classrooms.

Carnegie Mellon grad students designed a SMALLab game to improve grammar skills. Photo/CMU

Carnegie Mellon grad students designed a SMALLab game to improve grammar skills. Photo/CMU

SMALLab was developed at Arizona State University in 2010, and has since found its way into classrooms throughout the country. The motion sensors help create a kinesthetic learning experience for the students, employing all their sense. Physics students playing a game about velocity, for example, will hear sounds that correspond to their speeds. Meanwhile, software tracks the students’ performance and provides feedback after the game.

The recent SMALLab expansion is in its nascent stage, but previous work by CMU students provides some insight into what’s to come. Since 2013, the ETC students have been developing SMALLab games, also called “scenarios,” for Pittsburgh’s Elizabeth Forward School District, the first public schools ever to use the technology.

An ETC team called Kinetics is currently wrapping up work on two SMALLab projects for the district.

Tasked with creating a scenario that would teach third to fifth graders arithmetic, the team has produced a game that has the students doing math while also learning about nutrition. In the competitive game, the kids have to fix an incomplete recipe by selecting fruits, which each have a specified health value.

After testing the product on the students, the CMU programmers have made a number of changes. The more motivation for experimentation, and the more visual feedback, the more the students were engaged, they learned, according to Aaron Li, a CMU master’s student and a member of the Kinetics team. Plus, they had to adjust the interface for young people who hadn’t quite reached adult heights yet.

This kind of “embodied learning” gives kids something traditional technology can’t.

“They have to physically move their bodies, and this will make them master or remember the skills better than if they just look at a screen or textbook,” Li said.

Mina Johnson-Glenberg, a cognitive scientist and chief learning officer at SMALLab, writes at Getting Smart that the platform is the product of “a long research history that supports the efficacy of students ‘doing something’ in order to learn it.”

With the latest expansion, teachers in a variety of subjects will get a chance to use SMALLab. Already, the platform hosts a wide range of scenarios. In one game that is popular at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, students adjust virtual mirrors to learn about angles. In another game, “Disease Transmission,” students help a virtual population survive a pandemic. They use science, critical thinking, and teamwork to tackle resource scarcity and control the disease.

Like all the best ed tech, SMALLab is an unusual tool that builds classic skills: collaboration, problem-solving.

Li said he gets a bit jealous of his young clients. “At their age, it would have been the perfect learning platform for me,” he said.