Icon for: Robb Lindgren


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Developing Crosscutting Concepts in STEM with Simulation Theaters for Embodie...

NSF Awards: 1441563

2017 (see original presentation & discussion)

Grades 9-12

ELASTIC3S seeks to create a new genre of technology-enhanced educational interactions by developing "simulation theaters for embodied learning" targeting crosscutting concepts highlighted in the NGSS. Embodied interactions (e.g., hand gestures, whole-body movements) have shown promise for increasing learning in specific STEM concepts, but less is known about how these interactions promote the understanding of abstract and crosscutting ideas such as scale, rates of change, patterns, etc. Using advanced gesture recognition technologies and immersive visualizations, we are attempting to create an expressive environment where students can learn STEM through their intuitive body actions.  


To accomplish our goals, we are working with high school students in rural and small urban areas to understand the natural ways that students use body movement to think about these crosscutting concepts in specific STEM topic areas. For example, we have done interviews with students where they are prompted to use gestures to reason about non-linear scales such as the Richter scale or the pH scale. We are using these interviews to design simulations that use a common gesture scheme and visual representation for exploring diverse STEM topics such as earthquakes and acidity/basicity. Our learning measures are targeted at understanding whether developing a body-based understanding of scale in one topic area facilitates learning in another.


The ultimate aims of ELASTIC3S are to 1) demonstrate the applicability of embodiment to instructional design, and 2) to advance gesture recognition and other body-based interface such that they better accommodate the needs of STEM learning and education.

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Discussion from the 2017 STEM for All Video Showcase (11 posts)
  • Icon for: Robb Lindgren

    Robb Lindgren

    Lead Presenter
    Assistant Professor
    May 14, 2017 | 10:29 p.m.

    Hi everyone, thanks for checking out the ELASTICS project--if you want to learn more about what we're up to, please check out our webpage.

    We'd love to hear any feedback you have about the project. In particular we'd love to hear any stories or examples of how body movement contributed to students learning any "big ideas" in STEM, such as those captured by the NGSS's crosscutting concepts. We'd also really like your ideas for the kinds of learning environments where these simulation theaters could be used and how.

    Thanks again for perusing our project. Let us know what you think!


  • May 16, 2017 | 02:00 p.m.

    This is a wonderful project. I agree with you that embodied cognition is an underutilized idea in STEM education.

     One question: Are you looking at which types of gestures transfer better than others? I saw some leg gestures in the video that seemed very different from the hand/arm gestures.


    Also, there are some concepts in STEM that involve "handedness" or symmetry, such as chirality. Have you used this platform to teach any of those concepts yet? 

  • Icon for: Robb Lindgren

    Robb Lindgren

    Lead Presenter
    Assistant Professor
    May 16, 2017 | 11:42 p.m.

    Thanks Cyrus! Good questions. Before we started building the simulations we did a bunch of interviews with students to get a sense of the types of gestures that they perform naturally when reasoning quantitatively. For example, when students were describing multiplicative growth, like successive doubling, they often used a “stacking” gesture where they were essentially taking a quantity and folding it onto itself. Based on those observations, we frequently encourage students to scale up the quantity they are working with (e.g., the magnitude of an Earthquake) by using a folding gesture. But the cool thing about the gesture recognition system our team has built is that it’s highly customizable, so really any gesture that can be recognized by the Kinect could be used for multiplication. The biggest constraint is just making sure the gestures we use for different operations are distinct, which is one of the reasons that we’ve prompted students to use leg gestures like kicking to represent a decrease in quantity. Kicking wasn’t a gesture that we saw many kids do spontaneously in our initial interviews (they were seated, after all), but the metaphor of kicking away a block off of a stack of blocks seemed to resonate with the students.


    We have not targeted symmetry/chirality in this project, but it’s a good idea. Obviously this is relevant for learning in chemistry, but do you have ideas for other STEM topics where these concepts are at play? I know that Mitch Nathan at UW Madison is doing some cool embodied tech for doing geometric proofs, but if these specific concepts are hit upon in their work. So far we have mostly focused on scale, and right now we are building sims that examine rates of change in a few different science content areas.

  • May 17, 2017 | 09:36 a.m.

    Thanks for your reply. It definitely helped me understand your research.


    As for other areas, there are some aspects of physics and electromagnetism that involve chirality, such as the direction that a current will flow (see: this page) that I feel have enormous potential as they are not obvious to many new students of physics.

    Thanks so much for sharing your work.







  • Icon for: Jeremy Roschelle

    Jeremy Roschelle

    May 16, 2017 | 11:01 p.m.

    Hi Robb,

    Great Cyberlearning Example! I am curious about the interactional setting for gesture. In the video, it seems like "control" the simulation is the way in which gesture is being used. But of course, you are on the video using gestures to "explain" to the watcher. Gestures can also be used to "coordinate" people who are doing something together -- an orchestra conductor. Help me think about embodied cognition and all these possible interactional uses of gesture....




  • Icon for: Robb Lindgren

    Robb Lindgren

    Lead Presenter
    Assistant Professor
    May 17, 2017 | 12:22 a.m.

    Hey Jeremy, thanks for the question. Yes indeed, gesture is ubiquitous and serves many purposes. On another project, GRASP, my team focuses specifically on the role that gesture plays in constructing explanations of science phenomena. On that project we try to provide visualizations that augment the hand gestures students make as a way of getting them to hone in on causal mechanisms.


    On the ELASTICS project I think the way we are using gesture is a little different—we’re trying to provide a platform for students to get a physical sense of STEM ideas that don’t have readily available physical corollaries. So, for example, when dealing with really big or really small quantities, our bodies are pretty limited in directly representing those quantities—our arms only go out so far and our fingers can only be perceived to be so close. But we can embody the *operations* that can get us to those quantities fairly quickly. In ELASTICS a student can compare 1 to 1 million with just six gestures representing “times 10.” The important thing, we think, is that whatever that gesture is has a “times 10” meaning to the student, which we think we are accomplishing by building a metaphor around the gesture, and by contrasting it with gestures that do other things, like adding 1 unit at a time.


    This answer doesn’t come close to addressing all the interactional uses of gesture, but we think that creating a set of “embodied primitives” that can be used for engaging across science topics is fairly novel, and hopefully strengthens the transfer potential of integrating gesture in STEM education.

  • Icon for: Jackie DeLisi

    Jackie DeLisi

    Research Scientist
    May 17, 2017 | 12:06 p.m.

    This is a really interesting project. Can you say more about any implications for teacher instructional practice? Have you also done any work with teachers to understand how they might use or teach gestures to increase students' understandings?

  • Small default profile

    Jason Morphew

    Graduate Student
    May 17, 2017 | 05:33 p.m.

    Thanks Jackie! These are great questions. I am a graduate student working on the ELASTICS project. I taught middle school and high school before returning to graduate school. There are a couple of implications that I have taken from the project so far. First, is that gestures that are conceptual in nature seem to be aligned with sophisticated conceptual understanding. In addition, providing students with these gestures appears to facilitate their reasoning (one example is the right hand rule in Physics). This may mean that teachers should provide students an opportunity to use gesture in their explanations. This provides an additional source for assessing students conceptual knowledge. We have often seen students who are able to give answers using formalisms for familiar questions, but then struggle to apply the same reasoning on similar questions. These students tend to use gestures that are related to the formalism rather than the concept (e.g., they make an X to represent multiplying rather than a gesture representing area, making copies and folding the copies together).

    A second implication for me is that providing common gestures for concepts that cut across content areas may be useful in facilitating transfer of ideas. We have seen in our pilot interviews students who struggle with reasoning when engaged in problem solving for particular problems. However when provided with a gesture related to the conceptual understanding needed to solve the problem many of the students are able to then make progress.

    At this point in the project we have run focus groups with teachers looking at ways that they typically use simulations in their classes, design features that they find useful, and topic areas that they thought were important to include. We have not done much work with teachers on the ELASTICS project to this point, so I am not sure how much I can speak to your second question. However, Martha Alibali and Susan Goldin-Meadow have done some great work in this area.

    Discussion is closed. Upvoting is no longer available

    Robb Lindgren
  • Icon for: Martin Storksdieck

    Martin Storksdieck

    Director and Professor
    May 18, 2017 | 02:12 a.m.

    The role of gestures for science learning has been explored at recent Gordon Research Conferences on Visualization in Science and Education, and there were great examples on how gestures help learners engage with their own ideas and ultimately make better sense of things. I am fascinated that you seem to push the boundaries here by tackling transfer within the concepts of cross-cutting concepts in science (big ideas that are discipline independent, for those not familiar with NGSS lingo). Do you have evidence that gestures can help with that?

  • Icon for: Robb Lindgren

    Robb Lindgren

    Lead Presenter
    Assistant Professor
    May 18, 2017 | 01:03 p.m.

    Hey Martin, this is exactly what we're setting out to find--thanks for articulating it better than I have been. ;) I think we have good evidence so far for part of this argument. We're seeing improvement on students' general reasoning about scale, particularly differences between linear and non-linear scales after using a gesture augmented ELASTICS sim that focuses on on one topic (e.g., Earthquakes). What we are collecting data on right now is whether or not prior use--about 2 weeks previously--of the Earthquake sim improves performance and overall quant reasoning for people using a second sim (acids and bases, pH scale). In other words, is this general quantitative reasoning capacity that was facilitated with gestures initially transferable to a new domain. Analysis of pilot data looked promising--we'll keep you posted on findings. Would be fun to talk more with you about the kinds of environments you think gestural interactions for seeding transfer could be tried and tested. 

  • May 19, 2017 | 12:20 p.m.

    Robb, this is great! I'm so excited to see more of your work. Thank you for sharing.

    Discussion is closed. Upvoting is no longer available

    Robb Lindgren
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