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ASU professor straddles 2 disciplines with cognition, learning science research

February 5, 2019

Michelene Chi's work on improving how students learn complex concepts has earned her the top faculty distinction

Michelene Chi has tackled one of the thorniest problems in education: finding a way to get children to learn complex concepts.

Chi, a cognitive and learning science researcher, has been working for years not only on theories of how students learn science concepts and why they struggle, but also on ways to improve classroom teaching.

Chi has been so proficient in her field that she has been named one of four Regents' Professors for the 2018–19 school year — the highest faculty honor, which is achieved by only 3 percent of faculty members at Arizona State University.

Chi is the Dorothy Bray Professor of Science and Teaching in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She leads the Learning and Cognition Lab at ASU, and she has written more than 150 research papers.

“I really straddle two fields, and when you straddle two fields, you’re not usually central to either, so to be recognized is great,” said Chi, whose research into cognition spans psychology and education.

She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and last year won the David E. Rumelhart Prize from the Cognitive Science Society for significant contributions to the theoretical foundations of human cognition.

One of Chi’s most significant achievements is the development of ICAP Framework, a way to deeply engage middle school science students in learning. ICAP stands for Interactive, Constructive, Active and Passive, which describes the four kinds of engagement that teachers can use. 

She also has studied “vicarious learning,” to see how students learn by watching videos. Her research found that students learn better by watching a video of a tutoring session, with give-and-take between the tutor and tutee, than by watching just a straightforward instructional video.

Her more recent work focuses on how to overcome students’ misconceptions about science concepts to improve teaching of complex processes. Her theory is called PAIC, for Pattern, Agent, Interaction and Cause.

“People have a natural tendency to think that these processes have a singular-multiple or sequential cause-and-effect, and they don’t understand collective causes,” she said.

For example, when geese fly in a “V” formation, many students believe it’s because the birds are following the leader goose, but it’s actually a complex system involving wind resistance. In the PAIC framework, students get additional content during the lesson that primes them to realize their misconception and better understand concepts such as diffusion and natural selection. That’s being tested this spring with ninth-graders.

Chi’s research is significant because it not only elucidates the theory, it sets out a way to use it in the classroom, which she describes as “translation” work.

“Translation research is not simply taking a theory or some finding in the lab and applying to the field. It’s not that simple, especially when it comes to learning,” she said.

“It has multiple steps, and in every step it can fail.”

For example, Chi’s most recent paper, published in 2018 the journal Cognitive Science, is a study of using ICAP in the classroom.

“We have to design a module to explain what ICAP is to teachers. Then we have to assess teachers’ understanding with a paper-and-pencil test,” she said.

“Then the third step is we see how well they understand it by how well they revise their lesson plans and how they design the classroom activities. Then we have to see whether they can implement it in real time while they’re teaching,” she said.

The fifth step is to see whether students actually do what the teacher asks them to do and whether they learn.

“You can’t just take a result and plunk it into a classroom,” she said. “You have to design the process in which the theory makes it into the classroom.”

Many times a theory about learning is turned into a professional-development module for teachers without that thoughtful, multi-step progression.

“Almost no one links from step one to that final step, which is student learning,” she said. “What you’re talking about is transferring what the teacher understands into a dynamic implementation process in the classroom, which is extremely difficult.”

Chi said that the more she works on translating theory to classroom learning, the more hurdles she uncovers. For example, so far the lab has not been able to replicate its success with students’ watching tutorial videos in a research study to a real classroom. One reason was because the students in the actual biology class didn’t like watching the tutorial videos.

“The dialogue video includes students making mistakes and they said, ‘We don’t want to learn from watching mistakes,’ but they don’t understand that the mistakes help them to learn.

“So you’re encountering this phenomenon where students’ beliefs about learning are not compatible with learning.”

She has found that collaborative interaction is one of the best ways to learn.

“But you can’t just put two people together and expect them to interact well,” she said. “What we need to do is to develop a training system to teach people how to collaborate.”

Also, working with teachers can present practical problems. In one project, Chi started with 20 teachers and was down to seven by the end of the study as teachers retired or moved to other classes. And sometimes they resist the methodology.

“A lot of teachers don’t like students to collaborate because they say, ‘I’ll lose control of the class,’ ” she said.

Sparking that moment when a student understands is critical, but Chi is driven by a wider goal.

“How do I describe that instruction so that I can hand it to you and you can do it? It’s no good if it can’t be scaled up,” she said.

Chi originally trained as a psychologist and wrote a highly cited paper about the difference in cognition between experts and novices in physics. 

“But then once I found the difference, I realized it’s not possible to teach a novice to become an expert because that difference is so great. It takes at least 10 years to become an expert,” she said.

“That’s when I turned my attention to learning.”

Chi said that ASU’s design inspirations, including a focus on use-inspired research, align perfectly with her mission.

“That's what my research direction is since arriving at ASU — I conduct research that can have an impact on student learning.”

Top photo: Regents' Professor Michelene Chi (photographed Jan. 28 on the Tempe campus) directs the Learning and Cognition Lab in the Institute for the Science of Teaching and Learning at ASU. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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ASU at Mesa City Center aims to be world-class hub for digital innovation

New ASU location in downtown Mesa will be a digital innovation hub.
February 5, 2019

New building will house media arts, gaming, film production programs; Innovation Studio will connect to the startup community

Arizona State University’s new location in downtown Mesa will train students in the transdisciplinary digital expertise that technology companies are now demanding, according to ASU President Michael Crow.

“This will be the place with everything digital you can possibly imagine, every level of creativity, every level of new company idea and spinout in science and technology and the arts,” Crow said Tuesday at the Mesa “State of the City” breakfast, sponsored by the Mesa Chamber of Commerce.

“If you travel around the world, there are a few significant digital innovation centers that exist — in Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, London, New York City. We’re building one for the Western United States here in Mesa.”

The new ASU Mesa location — scheduled to open in fall 2021 — will house the ASU Creative Futures Laboratory, including academic programs offered by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts related to digital and sensory technology, experiential design, gaming, media arts, film production, and entrepreneurial development and support.

In his State of the City address, Mesa Mayor John Giles said the new economy needs technology jobs.

“I consistently hear the words ‘augmented reality, artificial intelligence, 3D design,’ ” he said. “Mesa is very excited about what is now the reality of ASU coming to our downtown Innovation District.”

Mesa Mayor John Giles and ASU President Michael Crow speak onstage

Mesa Mayor John Giles (left) and ASU President Michael Crow talk about the new ASU at Mesa City Center location at the mayor's "State of the City" breakfast Tuesday at the Mesa Convention Center. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Crow said the new location will prepare students to work in Mesa’s growing technology sector.

“The hottest thing right now that people are looking for is, ‘Show me a kid who is trained in the arts but also is digitally capable,’ ” he said.

“What we’re looking to do is have a creative center. High school kids, college students attending ASU, businesses in the community — everyone will be a part of this.”

The centerpiece of ASU's presence in downtown Mesa will be a five-story building to be constructed at Pepper Street and Centennial Way, which will draw more than 750 ASU students, faculty and staff to downtown Mesa. Last month, the Mesa City Council selected the architects to design the 118,000-square-foot academic building.

The ASU building is part of the city's efforts to build an Innovation District in downtown Mesa. The district will include The Plaza at Mesa City Center, a two- to three-acre gathering space just south of the building, with an open community space, water features and seasonal ice rink.

The ground floor of the new building will contain an exhibition gallery, screening theaters and a cafe. The upper floors will include production studios, fabrication labs, flexible classrooms and spaces for collaborations with community and industry. The building also will feature an enhanced-immersion studio where users can create augmented realities and map virtual spaces onto physical environments.

Faculty in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre already have been brainstorming with the architects on specifications for the new space, such as the best size for the production studios and whether to include a full-size kitchen, which would not only service students who will be using the space around the clock but also could be used as a set for filming.

Video by Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts

ASU also will offer an Innovation Studio in downtown Mesa, run by Entrepreneurship and Innovation at ASU. The studio would offer a physical space for collaboration and also connect the startup community to the academic programs offered, according to Ji Mi Choi, associate vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU.

“It could be everything from an events space to community-facing workshops, seminars and boot camps on startup methodologies, to demo days or a food showcase,” Choi said.

ASU also is in talks to create a coworking space at the Innovation Studio, she said.

“It could be for one person who’s kind of dabbling with an idea, or it could be an existing company with one or two employees or part-time employees,” Choi said.

Entrepreneurship and Innovation wants to leverage the existing commitment to the arts in Mesa, she said.

“We can see having production-based companies that are in gaming and virtual reality and augmented reality, as well as film and storytelling because of the academic programs that will be there,” she said.

“We think there will be a center of gravity around arts entrepreneurship but not exclusive to that.”

ASU at Mesa City Center will be about seven miles from the Tempe campus (about a 20-minute ride on the light rail) and about 16 miles from the ASU Polytechnic campus in east Mesa, which offers programs in engineering and specialty degrees like air traffic management and professional flight.

The architects are Holly Street Studio, which designed the renovation of the old downtown Phoenix post office into the Student Center at the Post Office in 2013, and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, which has designed buildings at Disney's Creative Campus, the Colorado School of Mines and the University of California, San Diego. The design and construction team also features DPR Construction, whose projects include Pixar Animation Studio, as well as ASU Polytechnic and SkySong locations.

Top photo: An artist rendering of the proposed ASU at Mesa City Center building.

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now