There is a new cultural movement where everyday people tinker with concepts in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), simply for the purpose of satisfying creativity and curiosity. This "maker movement" is powered by the wide availability of low-cost electronics and manufacturing tools, which allow amateur makers to create interactive objects while exploring scientific phenomena. Such environments have great potential to engage people with STEM concepts and activities while empowering individuals to find creative solutions to complex and personally meaningful issues. However, in these learning environments, frequently students' focus is more on completing a technical project rather than comprehending scientific concepts. While some learning does happen in such contexts, a significant portion of maker activities may include following a list of instructions and trusting that they are going to result into a functional project. In this project an emerging technology, Augmented Reality (AR), is investigated as a means to transform the STEM maker movement by making challenging concepts accessible to students. Many invisible phenomena are involved in maker space activities (e.g., the flow of electricity, the interaction of magnetic fields, or the movement of air pressure waves). Augmented Reality headsets, such as the Microsoft Hololens, allow students to see virtual "holograms" in the physical world. This project investigates the impact of design activities where learners can visualize and interact with the hidden forces involved in their projects, such as electrons, magnetic fields, light or radio waves, or to visualize the inner workings of physical components such as microchips and sensors. This proposal explores how a new generation of maker spaces can be enhanced by augmented reality technologies to create learning environments that enable making with understanding.
This project augments traditional student activities in maker spaces using augmented reality (AR) technology, and investigates whether this intervention 1) increases learning gains, 2) facilitates deeper conceptual discussion among students, and 3) modifies student conceptions of the observed phenomena. An example activity includes building a speaker from scratch (in which amplified electrical signals are converted into magnetic fields), or programming a micro-controller to make decisions based on the readings of multiple sensors. Such activities are enhanced by the use of AR technology, as the system overlays a representation the invisible phenomena (flow of electrons, magnetic forces, sensor values, snippets of code, etc.) directly on top of the relevant physical components. Research involves conducting systematic empirical studies to compare the usefulness of AR-based learning vs. traditional non-AR approaches, and follow-up studies to identify the affordances for collaborative learning. The project will employ traditional quantitative and qualitative measures, along with novel methods from the field of multi-modal learning analytics to understand and classify students' behaviors across conditions. This work will 1) contribute to our understanding of how student education of STEM concepts can be enhanced by new technologies such as augmented reality, 2) contribute a set of reusable modules to visualize and simulate the invisible phenomena that are commonly encountered in maker activities, and 3) produce guidelines to help the design of innovative learning environments.