Human-Computer Interaction Institute
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


Briding Physical and Virtual Learning:
A Mixed-Reality System for Early Science

Nesra Yannier

August 2016

Ph.D. Thesis


Keywords: Tangible Interfaces, Mixed-Reality Learning, enjoyment, classroom experiments, usercentered design, controlled experiments, contrasting cases, guided discovery, exploration, interactive feedback, depth-camera sensing, games, scientific inquiry

Tangible interfaces and mixed-reality environments have potential to bring together the advantages of physical and virtual environments to improve children's learning and enjoyment. However, there are too few controlled experiments that investigate whether interacting with physical objects in the real world accompanied by interactive feedback may actually improve student learning compared to flat-screen interaction. Furthermore, we do not have a sufficient empirical basis for understanding how a mixed-reality environment should be designed to maximize learning and enjoyment for children.

I created EarthShake, a mixed-reality game bridging physical and virtual worlds via a Kinect depth-camera and a specialized computer vision algorithm to help children learn physics. I have conducted three controlled experiments with EarthShake that have identified features that are more and less important to student learning and enjoyment. The first experiment examined the effect of observing physical phenomena and collaboration (pairs versus solo), while the second experiment replicated the effect of observing physical phenomena while also testing whether adding simple physical control, such as shaking a tablet, improves learning and enjoyment. The experiments revealed that observing physical phenomena in the context of a mixed-reality game leads to significantly more learning (5 times more) and enjoyment compared to equivalent screen-only versions, while adding simple physical control or changing group size (solo or pairs) do not have significant effects. Furthermore, gesture analysis provides insight as to why experiencing physical phenomena may enhance learning.

My thesis work further investigates what features of a mixed-reality system yield better learning and enjoyment, especially in the context of limited experimental results from other mixed-reality learning research. Most mixed-reality environments, including tangible interfaces (where users manipulate physical objects to create an interactive output), currently emphasize open-ended exploration and problem solving, and are claimed to be most effective when used in a discovery-learning mode with minimal guidance. I investigated how critical to learning and enjoyment interactive guidance and feedback is (e.g. predict/observe/explain prompting structure with interactive feedback), in the context of EarthShake. In a third experiment, I compared the learning and enjoyment outcomes of children interacting with a version of EarthShake that supports guided-discovery, another version that supports exploration in discovery-learning mode, and a version that is a combination of both guided-discovery and exploration. The results of the experiment reveals that Guided-discovery and Combined conditions where children are exposed to the guided discovery activities with the predict-observe-explain cycle with interactive feedback yield better explanation and reasoning. Thus, having guided-discovery in a mixed-reality environment helps with formulating explanation theories in children's minds. However, the results also suggest that, children are able to activate explanatory theory in action better when the guided discovery activities are combined with exploratory activities in the mixed-reality system. Adding exploration to guided-discovery activities, not only fosters better learning of the balance/physics principles, but also better application of those principles in a hands-on, constructive problem-solving task.

My dissertation contributes to the literatures on the effects of physical observation and mixed-reality interaction on students' science learning outcomes in learning technologies. Specifically, I have shown that a mixed-reality system (i.e., combining physical and virtual environments) can lead to superior learning and enjoyment outcomes than screen-only alternatives, based on different measures. My work also contributes to the literature of exploration and guided-discovery learning, by demonstrating that having guided-discovery activities in a mixed-reality setting can improve children's fundamental principle learning by helping them formulate explanations. It also shows that combining an engineering approach with scientific thinking practice (by combining exploration and guided-discovery activities) can lead to better engineering outcomes such as transferring to constructive hands-on activities in the real world. Lastly, my work aims to make a contribution from the design perspective by creating a new mixed-reality educational system that bridges physical and virtual environments to improve children's learning and enjoyment in a collaborative way, fostering productive dialogue and scientific curiosity in museum and school settings, through an iterative design methodology to ensure effective learning and enjoyment outcomes in these settings.

146 pages

Thesis Committee:
Kenneth R. Koedinger (Co-Chair)
Scott E. Hudson (Co-Chair)
Jessica Hammer
Kevin Crowley (University of Pittsburgh)

Anind K. Dey, Head, Human-Computer Interaction Institute
Andrew W. Moore, Dean, School of Computer Science

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