BrainExplorer


New project page: 
BrainExplorer
Team Members: 
Bertrand Schneider, Jenelle Wallace, Paulo Blikstein, Roy Pea
Project Dates: 
2010-2012
Summary: 
The goal of BrainExplorer is to make neuroscience concepts accessible to a broader audience of students. We argue that the spatial nature of the brain makes it an ideal candidate for hands-on activities coupled with a tangible interface. Our system allows users to discover the way neural pathways work by interacting with an augmented model of the brain. By severing connections, users can observe how the visual field is impaired and thus actively learn from their actions.
Description: 

The goal of BrainExplorer is to make neuroscience concepts accessible to a broader audience. We argue that the spatial nature of the brain makes it an ideal candidate for hands-on activities coupled with a tangible interface. Also, we wanted to use this learning environment as a way to prepare students for future learning. Our system allows users to discover the way neural pathways work by interacting with an augmented model of the brain. By severing connections, users can observe how the visual field is impaired and thus actively learn from their actions. 

Given that the brain is a dynamic 3D system, we propose that it is extremely difficult to teach neuroscience with standard tools. Our system, BrainExplorer, takes advantage of recent technological developments, including infrared camera technology and webcam-based tracking, to create a tangible user interface to study the human brain.

Our learning goal is for students to learn about the structures involved in processing visual stimuli, their spatial locations in the three dimensional brain, how information is processed in the visual system, and what effects specifically localized lesions might have on a person’s visual field. Our system was targeted to a wide range of educational settings. Its primary purpose is as an inquiry learning tool for middle and high school students to engage in scaffolded investigation about the brain. To test the relevance of our system for neuroscience education, we conducted an experiment with 28 Participants (13 males, 15 females; average age = 28.2, SD = 5.7). Half of the participants interacted with the system for 15 minutes, took a learning test, read a textbook chapter for 15 minutes, and finally took a post-test. The other half of the participants followed the same procedure except that they read the textbook chapter first and then used BrainExplorer.

Our results suggest that participants not only better learn with BrainExplorer, but also benefit more from the table if they use it before reading a text on the same topic. Those results have several implications for the design of educational tangibles and learning activities related to neuroscience.

First, our findings suggest that BrainExplorer better supports knowledge building than a paper version of the same learning material. Future studies should isolate which component of BrainExplorer explains most of the variance of this outcome: did our system outperform the paper activity because users were able to explore the domain at their own rhythm or because the 3D physical representation is more appropriate for learning concepts related to the brain? Second, we found that properly sequencing learning activities when using a tangible interface is crucial for knowledge building. Participants in both conditions went through the identical material. The only difference was that they completed the two activities in a reverse order. Participants who used BrainExplorer first and then read a text significantly outperformed the group who read a text first. This result means that learning activities do not have additive effect: they are not interchangeable. On the contrary, learning activities interact in complex ways. Our results suggest that anchoring new learning with sensori- motor activities provides a better foundation for future learning.