Augmented Reality: Teaching Kids About Their World

How do you teach kids about unseen forces? For example, the force that causes a ball to roll down a ramp. Teachers use demonstrations, experiments, and of course textbooks. Now, Georgia Tech and Verizon Foundation want to add augmented reality to the list.

Georgia Tech’s Interactive Media Technology Center (IMTC) is developing and testing a prototype of an augmented reality mobile application. Its purpose: get kids excited about STEM education by using fun, interactive and compelling experiences. IMTC recently tested the prototype with kids ranging from six to 14 years old. They tested four demos – cubes (learning how to calculate volume and density), a train (setting up an experiment and testing hypotheses about forces and mass), a catapult (understanding the paths of projectiles), and lasers (teaching optics via a game controlled by virtual light beams, mirrors, and prisms). The app is designed as a collaborative, social experience, which enhances learning.

WATCH: A demo of IMTC's augmented reality mobile app

Augmented reality, or AR, is overlaying virtual information on the physical world. This typically means visual information delivered through a handheld device like a tablet, phone or head-mounted display. Sports fans see it on television all the time – on the football field marking a first down or tracking a swimmer as she glides through the pool.

“What’s great about those augmentations is they’re so elegantly integrated into the physical world,” said Maribeth Gandy, director of the IMTC. “They look like they’re part of the field, they look like they’re coming up out of the goal post, they’re attached to the NASCAR as it’s moving around. It doesn’t just look cool; it provides real value. It reduces the cognitive load that it requires for you to interpret the information.”

Gandy said a lot of kids are technologically savvy and have already experienced AR in their daily lives through video games and mobile apps. So the challenge is producing a prototype that’s polished, educational and engaging. Feedback from the kids is invaluable.

“We forget that they’re cognitively different, they’re physically different, their mental model of how technology works or how the world works is really different,” said Gandy. “They didn’t understand things that seem obvious to an adult - like why the train didn’t go the same distance every time no matter how much stuff you put in the bed of the train - because they don’t have an intuition about physics the way that older kids or adults do.”

Another hurdle is the handheld aspect. Researchers used a tablet for testing, but discovered that some of the younger kids struggled to hold it because they have small hands.

Gandy and her team will now take the data they collected, make tweaks and eventually make the app available to the public. They’ll also create physical and virtual “exploration kits” for students in Verizon’s Innovative Learning Schools and other schools across the country. Augmentations will be personalized to each student, with grade-appropriate content.

“The opportunity for today’s students to better understand complex STEM concepts is so important,” said Kristin Townsend, Manager - CSR Program Development, Verizon Foundation.

“Leveraging technology to help students not only understand but see everyday examples of STEM principles in their lives not only facilitates learning, but it inspires students to consider STEM fields that tend to be very abstract.”