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Lehigh U Students Developing Preschool Geometry App

Students at Lehigh University are working on a mobile app designed to help preschool children understand geometry concepts.

Part of the university's Mountaintop initiative, the project brings together undergraduate students Faye Sheppard and Luke Zhang, school psychology doctoral student Brittany Kuder and Robin Hojnoski, an associate professor of psychology to build an app that will give students "a meaningful and accessible block-building experience — without actual blocks," according to a news release.

"We know a lot about kids' development in number sense but far less about kids' development of shape and geometry and spatial sense," said Hojnoski, whose research focuses on mathematical development, in a prepared statement. "Three-dimensional shapes are really important, and how kids use shapes ... is really related to spatial sense: being able to have a design in mind and then mentally rotate to form that design and then make it happen. Those things are really important to overall spatial sense and spatial development, which are key skills related to STEM fields."

With Hojnoski mentoring, Kuder and Sheppard have been observing children in preschool and childcare classrooms as they play with blocks and other tasks related to spatial reasoning, number sense self regulation and vocabulary.

"We basically want to see what child abilities relate to their geometric abilities, what they're doing with blocks [and] how complex their structures are," said Kuder in a news release.

"We've been looking at block building this year in the Bethlehem Area School District preschools, and we started talking about developing a tablet application that would allow children to build with blocks," explained Kuder. "We wanted ours to be data-driven and research-based. ... There are a few apps that offer building with more than just cubes, and a lot of them are based on fantasy worlds. We want one that's more explicitly educational."

The app, being developed by Zhang, a computer science student, will use the data Kuder and Sheppard gather to replicate block play on a tablet.

"There are many exciting aspects to this work, from a cross-disciplinary perspective," said Michael Spear, assistant professor of computer science and engineering and consultant for the team, in a news release. "Obviously this is not a cookie-cutter project, from a programming perspective. It involves mobile devices, 3D physics and multi-touch. But beyond the raw technical challenges, there's an exciting user experience/design aspect to the work. The program will ultimately be used by children who have not yet learned how to read. ... When the main user of a program is a young child, many of the standard approaches that we normally use just don't work anymore. You need to re-think the interface entirely."

Eventually, the team hopes to bring the app out for field-testing, at which point they will use feedback to improve it and look into how it may be useful in development of other skills. The app may even be useful to child development researchers, as it will "generate data about human behavior, which then needs to be analyzed," said Spear, in a news release. "The program has the ability to make thousands of measurements per second, producing data at a granularity that allows completely new perspectives on how children learn…Ultimately, we'll be able to answer behavioral questions that are too intrusive to measure otherwise. ... We can superimpose a hundred children's behaviors and identify common patterns."

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].

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