Researchers at the University of Missouri (UM) will use $12 million in grant funding to teach science to middle schoolers and improve literacy outcomes for second graders.

The funding, from the Department of Education, will be used for two separate research projects at the school.

James Laffey, professor emeritus in the MU College of Education and Human Development, will use an $8 million grant to expand access to his video game, which allows players to go on a virtual journey where they learn about various water system topics, including water flow, ground water, atmospheric water and water contamination, and then use their knowledge to solve challenges in order to complete missions. Laffey will work with MU’s eMINTS National Center and the Missouri Research and Education Network (MOREnet) to expand his video game, Mission HydroSci, into 60 middle school classrooms across the country.

“I have always been interested in how we can best motivate students to learn, and perhaps the more traditional approaches of teachers lecturing students and assigning paperwork is not the most engaging,” said Laffey. “Given that nearly half of Americans play video games and 74 percent of parents believe games can be educational for their children, I thought creating a video game that incorporates science curriculum in a fun and innovative way could spark interest in science among middle schoolers.”

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MU explained that the eMINTS National Center is providing professional development and technology support for the participating middle schools, helping teachers implement the technology into their classrooms and curriculum. The video game will be offered on portable tablets when the grant is completed.

“In some of the schools where we have tested the game, teachers noticed the students who traditionally struggled with science were engaged, having fun while learning, and even helping out other students in the class who were struggling with certain missions,” Laffey said.

The second grant will be used by Betsy Baker, a professor in the MU College of Education and Human Development, to advance speech recognition software that allows second graders to speak verbally to their personal tablets and watch their words appear on the screen. Baker will use a $4 million grant to partner with the eMINTS National Center on the project.

“Previous research has shown students who are proficient readers by third grade are far more likely to finish high school, become employed, stay out of jail and remain off various government assistance programs,” said Baker. “Literacy and communication are at the core of our experiences as humans, so I am passionate about finding creative instructional approaches teachers can use to help their students read and write so they are set up for success later on in their lives.”

According to MU, the curriculum will be implemented in underserved, rural Missouri school districts with high rates of free and reduced-price lunch programs. More than 90 second grade teachers and 1,800 total students will be served. As with Laffey’s project, eMINTS will provide professional development and on-site support to help implement the technology.

“Particularly in rural, high-poverty areas, the traditional materials students are given in school often do not reflect their personal experiences, cultures or languages, so they may quickly become disengaged and disinterested,” Baker said. “With this talk-to-read approach, we are putting the kids in the driver seat. They can watch their own words, stories and experiences become written words by simply talking to their tablet, and we have found the students proficiently learn these words quicker because they are meaningful to them.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs