Research Projects

Faculty members in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development have attracted external funding from sources that include the U.S. Dept. of Education, National Science Foundation, Texas Instruments Foundation, Istation and other sponsors. These innovative research and professional development projects are designed to have real-world impact on regional and national education and applied physiology.

Exploring Collaborative Embodiment for Learning (EXCEL): Understanding Geometry through Multiple Modalities

Exploring Collaborative Embodiment for Learning (EXCEL): Understanding Geometry through Multiple Modalities

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES)
PI: Dr. Candace Walkington
August 2020 - July 2024

This project explores collaborative embodiment in the domain of geometric reasoning, leveraging Augmented Reality (AR) technology. AR is a technology that allows the layering of virtual components onto the physical world, such as projecting a three-dimensional hologram of a cylinder atop a real-world desk. Embodiment encompasses the idea that students can learn mathematics using physical motions, gestures, and their perceptions of objects and shapes. Theories of collaborative embodiment, i.e., theories that account for multiple people working together in an embodied way, are needed that take into account the multi-learner nature of mathematics classrooms, and how learners can jointly embody mathematical ideas using different tools and representations. Recent advances in multi-user instructional technology, namely shared holographic AR or shAR, allow for new and important hypotheses about collaborative embodiment to be tested. ShAR is AR technology where multiple learners can view and manipulate the same holograms together at the same time – in our case, holograms of different geometric shapes and solids. We hypothesize that different modalities for math learning (like a hologram, a set of physical manipulatives, a dynamic geometry system (DGS) on a tablet, or a piece of paper) have different affordances, including the degree to which they can represent dynamic transformations, can represent objects and operations in 3 dimensions, can support joint attention, and can provide situational feedback. This project is developing an experimental platform modeled after the Flatland novella, a piece of mathematical fiction from the 1800s about an imaginary world run by geometric shapes, to test our hypotheses. This platform will facilitate data collection from students, situate experimental tasks in an engaging narrative story, and allow for researchers to control key experimental variables. Our overarching research questions are: How do different modalities for collaborative embodiment, particularly shAR, impact student understanding of geometric principles? How are these effects mediated by gesture, language, and actions, and how are they moderated by student and task characteristics? This project is a collaboration between the Department of Teaching and Learning at SMU, the Guildhall at SMU, the Department of Educational Psychology at UW Madison, and a software company GeoGebra who will create the AR geometry environment.

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Project Intensity

Examining the Efficacy of Friends on the Block: An Intensive Early Literacy Intervention for Elementary Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disability (Project Intensity)

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES)
PI: Dr. Jill Allor
Co-PI: Dr. Stephanie Al Otaiba
July 2020 - June 2025

The purpose of Project Intensity is to conduct a randomized control trial (RCT) in schools in Alabama and Texas to evaluate the initial efficacy of Friends On The Block ( a comprehensive text‐based early literacy intervention written by professors Dr. Jill Allor, Dr. Stephanie Al Otaiba, and Dr. Jennifer Cheatham, to enhance the reading and language outcomes of participating students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Specifically, 240 students with IDD will be randomly assigned to a literacy intervention treatment condition (Friends on the Block (FOTB)) or a business‐as‐usual (BAU) control condition. Students in the treatment condition will receive the intervention from Project Teachers across two academic years. In addition to examining treatment effects on reading and language outcomes, we will explore moderators (e.g., IQ, SES) of the treatment. Friends on the Block is a comprehensive early literacy intervention designed to be inclusive and address the specific challenges and strengths of students with IDD; it includes a range of customizable and motivating materials comprised of: (1) a researcher‐developed book series, (2) explicit lessons that provide extensive opportunities for students to integrate skills and apply them in a meaningful context, and (3) multiple learning games to support practice and review. The books include narrative stories about the main character, Sam, and his friends on the block and related expository texts. The FOTB program is flexible and customizable, so teachers can adjust the pacing and instructional activities to meet the needs of various learners, particularly those with intensive needs, such as students with IDD.

Primary Research Questions

1. Do students who participate in FOTB demonstrate greater reading outcomes compared to students who participate in BAU reading instruction?

2. Do students who participate in FOTB demonstrate greater language outcomes compared to students who participate in BAU reading instruction?

For any questions please contact Dr. Miriam Ortiz the coordinator for Project Intensity.

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Meeting with surgeon

Creating Low-cost Virtual Reality Training to Improve Care during Labor and Delivery

Wellcome Trust
PI: Dr. Richard Sullivan, (King’s College London)
SMU PI: Dr. Eric G. Bing; Co-PI: Dr. Anthony Cuevas
February 2020 - January 2022

An international team of researchers from King’s College London, Southern Methodist University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the University of Zambia is developing techniques to train surgeons using low cost eLearning tools and Virtual Reality which can help improve the acquisition of knowledge and skills without patient contact. Surgery is one of the most crucial domains of global medicine, yet most low- and middle-income countries have stark deficits in both the absolute numbers of surgeons and their level of expertise to perform complex surgical procedures. Of the many types of emergency surgical interventions, some of the most crucial and complex are those required to manage obstetrical hemorrhage, the world's most common cause of maternal death. Funding from the Wellcome Trust will enable researchers to build and field test the first general affordable obstetrical virtual reality simulator training platform for the surgical management of obstetrical hemorrhage. The innovative training platform will integrate the latest advances in virtual reality technology with traditional hands-on training and can be easily and affordably delivered within low and middle-income contexts.

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Dr. Baker researching in the Simmons School Reading Room.

Excess in Texas: An investigation of the effect of state policies concerning excess credit hours on student success

American Educational Research Association (AERA)
PI: Dr. Dominique Baker
January 2020 - January 2021

In response to a growing concern about disparities in college completion and the student loan debt burden of college students, a small but rapidly growing number of states and institutions have begun implementing policies aimed at encouraging on-time completion. One of the ways that states have sought to limit student debt while encouraging timely graduation is to implement policies that disincentivize students from attempting too many courses beyond the number required for their degree program. Such initiatives are called Excess Semester Credit Hour (ESCH) policies. While Texas has had an ESCH since 1999, a 2006 revision created stricter thresholds for student violations of the policy. The proposed study investigates the institutional and student responses to this policy change, particularly for students historically underrepresented within higher education. The project will improve the scholarly understanding of the effect of this particular state policy for student success and will also inform state and institutional policymakers of potential unintended consequences of this policy (e.g., since the penalties generally include an additional fee for students to take courses beyond a set threshold, the policies may induce students to accumulate a larger amount of undergraduate student debt in order to cover the additional costs of finishing their degree).

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Dr. Baker lecturing students

Public Two-Year Institution District Service Areas and Racial Segregation

Spencer Foundation
PI: Dr. Dominique Baker
January 2020 - May 2021

Despite extensive attention to racial/ethnic segregation within K-12 education, particularly on attendance zones, scholars have rarely examined segregation in postsecondary education. At least 17 states have created service areas or “districts” for each of their public two-year institution that function similar to K-12 attendance zones. Given this dearth of knowledge, Dr. Baker will study the district boundaries of two-year institutions in order to investigate whether there is gerrymandering in the district boundaries and whether that boundary construction is associated with segregation. She will investigate this relationship in Texas (a useful case study due to its expansive sector of public two-year institutions and availability of district boundary information). Using student exchange framework, Dr. Baker will create and analyze a geospatial data set of Texas districts (merged with institutional and US Census data). Public two-year institutions educate a significant share of the US postsecondary education population. It matters whether the policy determining who attends which public two-year institutions exacerbates existing racial inequities.

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POLYMATH: Polycraft Multi-user Anthropomorphic Testbed for Hybrid Systems

U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)
PI: Dr. Eric Kildebeck (University of Texas at Dallas)
Co-PIs: Dr. Candace Walkington, Dr. Eric Bing, Dr. Anthony Cuevas
November 2019 - May 2023

This grant will examine using Polycraft World – a Minecraft mod - to create geometry puzzles. Puzzles will incorporate spatial reasoning tasks where students or agents arrange and manipulate blocks, fencing, and other objects to solve problems about geometric principles like area, volume, perimeter, reflection, and rotation. Data will be collected where students work cooperatively in teams to solve these puzzles either on a laptop in the digital Polycraft World, or in a live-action, full-sized “arena” where they manipulate actual foam bricks and pieces of fencing to discover problem solutions. Students’ actions when solving the tasks will be analyzed and coded, and gestures, speech, and actions on objects will be carefully extracted from video footage. We will also use physiological sensors to continuously detect learner states as they engage in problem solving. Later stages of the grant will involve using videos of learners solving the geometry puzzles to train an artificial intelligence agent to solve the same problems, and then will introduce different kinds of novelty into Polycraft World to disrupt problem-solving processes and foster creative thinking.

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Dr. Geller, Dr. Clark, and Dr. Larson sitting next to computer showing Minecraft.

Integrating Human Computer Interaction, Machine Learning, Game Design, and Educational Assessment in a STEM+C Curriculum

National Science Foundation (NSF)
(Award #1933848)
PI: Dr. Corey Clark
Co-PIs: Dr. Leanne Ketterlin Geller, Dr. Eric Larson
September 2019 - August 2023

National Science Foundation has awarded Corey Clark, Ph.D., Leanne Ketterlin Geller, Ph.D. and Eric Larson, Ph.D. a $1.5 million four year grant to research teaching computer science and computational thinking via Minecraft. Efforts to increase intrinsic interest in math and data science have proven difficult to apply evenly across gender, race, and socio-economic factors. This research project will assist in creating a more stable, ethical, and inclusive data science workforce by broadening the interest in data science to a more diverse population of students. This research spans the fields of game design, human computer interaction, machine learning, curriculum design and educational assessment by integrating essential computer science standards directly into Minecraft. The game and infrastructure produced through this research will serve as a vital computing resource for middle and high school educators that will be sustained beyond the current project.

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Validation of the Equity and Access Rubrics for Mathematics Instruction (VEAR-MI)

National Science Foundation (NSF)
PI: Jonee Wilson (NC State)
Co-PIs: Anne Garrison Wilhelm 
July 2019 - July 2023

In this four-year project, funded by the National Science Foundation (Award #1908481), we are studying elementary and middle-school mathematics instructional practice to address the challenge of supporting the increasingly diverse population of students to access and equitably participate in rigorous mathematical activity. Over the four years, researchers from North Carolina State University (NC State) and Southern Methodist University (SMU) will be collaborating to validate the EAR-MI, a new measure developed to capture practices aimed to support marginalized students in gaining access and more equitably participating in mathematics classrooms. Though the EAR-MI has great potential to support teacher educators and educational researchers in identifying, evaluating, and supporting the development of these practices, before promoting the use of the EAR-MI, it is important that the EAR-MI be validated to be used in particular ways so that claims and inferences drawn from using it are warranted. The study draws on Kane’s (2016) “argument-based approach to validity” in systematically building an argument for the validity of the EAR-MI.

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Creating a Prototype Augmented Reality Simulation for Learning High School Geometry

SMU University Research Council
PI: Dr. Candace Walkington
Co-PIs: Elizabeth Stringer, Deputy Director - Academics, SMU Guildhall
June 2019 - Ongoing

This interdisciplinary grant proposal seeks to build and test a “proof of concept” prototype of an augmented reality simulation environment for learning high school geometry. This grant is a collaboration between a faculty member in the Simmons School of Education and Human Development (Candace Walkington) and a faculty member in the SMU Guildhall Videogame Design Program (Elizabeth Stringer). With this grant, we seek to: (1) Design geometry simulations that utilize the Microsoft HoloLens 2 Augmented Reality (AR) system, (2) Create simulations that allow for hands-free, collaborative (multi-person) coordinated manipulations of geometric objects, (3) Test the simulation’s usability with pairs of middle and high school students working together to explore a single virtual geometric object, and (4) Assess what participants learn about geometry from using the simulation.

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Measuring Success: Lumin Education

Wend Ventures / Lumin Education
PI: Dr. Jan Mallett
Co-PI: Hiba Rahim
February 2019 - December 2021

A grant from Wend Ventures, formerly the Walton Family Foundation, was awarded to SMU Simmons CORE and Teaching and Learning. The project will fund research that will evaluate how the Lumin Education model of starting young, involving parents, and offering Montessori education results in improved academic achievement, emotional well-being, and executive function for its students. The study will build evaluation capacity and provide formative data to Lumin for continuous quality improvement. If possible, Lumin students will be compared to other students in the Dallas area. The goal of the collaboration between Lumin and The Simmons School collaboration is to answer emerging questions about the effects of Montessori education and the Lumin practices of starting young and involving parents. Also, the project will equip Lumin with additional tools and resources related to data collection, usage, and reporting that will serve as proof points to gain additional financial support and to sustain Lumin programming. Jan Mallett, PI, Hiba Rahim, CoPI, Elisa Gallegos, and Harvey Luna represent SMU Simmons on the project.

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Collaborative (Strategies): Personalizing Mathematics to Maximize Relevance and Skill for Tomorrow's STEM Workforce

National Science Foundation (NSF)
PI: Candace Walkington
Co-PIs: Dr. Matthew Bernacki (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill)
Dr. Harsha Perera (University of Nevada Las Vegas)
Dr. Neil Heffernan (Worcestor Polytechnic Institute)
August 2018 - July 2021

This project examines how to engage students taking foundational mathematics courses by connecting math to STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers. Using ASSISTments, students will watch videos, read stories, and solve example problems about how the math they are learning connects to careers that interest them, and then will pose and share their own math problems.

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A Research Partnership to Improve the Quality of Pre-K Classroom Practices and Child Outcomes in a Large Urban School District

U.S. Deptartment of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES)
PI: Dr. Akihito Kamata
July 2018 - December 2020

The Early Learning Department of the Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD) and the Center on Research and Evaluation (CORE) are engaged in A Research Partnership to Improve the Quality of Pre-K Classroom Practices and Child Outcomes in a Large Urban School District. The research partnership focuses on providing high-quality pre-K programs to all children in the Dallas ISD. The purpose of the research partnership is to systematically improve overall pre-K quality through professional development (PD) Dallas ISD provides to instructional specialists (i.e., coaches) and pre-K classroom teachers. The partnership will focus on differentiating PD for teachers based on teacher need, focusing on high-quality teacher-child interactions aligned with the CLASS observation instrument and associated PD system. The partnership will also focus on improving PD for teachers in Instruction Support domain, which remains a particular challenge in pre-K classrooms. The research partnership will focus on all pre-K programs in the district.

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West Dallas STEM Innovation School

Toyota Foundation
PI: Dean Stephanie Knight
June 2018 - June 2021

A generous gift from the Toyota USA Foundation has enabled SMU Simmons, Dallas ISD, and Toyota to form a partnership to develop a STEM-focused School in West Dallas. The School will feature an evidence-based, industry-informed STEM curriculum and community services that include extracurricular academic programming and student and family counseling.


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Project STAIR: Supporting Teaching of Algebra: Individualization and Reasoning

U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)
PI: Dr. Leanne Ketterlin Geller
Co-PIs: Dr. Erica Lembke (University of Missouri),
Dr. Sarah Powell (University of Texas, Austin)
January 2018 - December 2021

The long-term goal of this model demonstration is to contribute empirical evidence on the effectiveness of a system of instructional practices for supporting the algebra-readiness of middle school students with specific learning disabilities in mathematics. Click here for more information.

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Understanding How Elementary Teachers Take Up Discussion Practices to Promote Disciplinary Learning and Equity

James S. McDonnel Foundation
PI: Dr. Lynsey Gibbons (Boston University)
Co-PI: Dr. Anne Garrison Wilhelm (Southern Methodist University)
Co-PIs: Andrea Bien, Eve Manz, Catherine O’Connor, Beth Warren, Ann Rosebery, Eli Tucker-Raymond (Boston University and TERC)
January 2018 - December 2022

In this 5 year project, we are focused on understanding how elementary teachers use discussion practices in their classrooms, across content areas. In the first phase, we are interested in describing teachers’ practice and understanding teachers’ decision-making. In the second phase, we will focus on designing learning opportunities for teachers to leverage their existing strengths to improve their discussion practice as they aim to support disciplinary learning and equity.

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McNair Scholars Project

U.S. Dept. of Education
PI: Dr. David Deggs
October 2017 - September 2022

McNair Scholars Project provides research and other scholarly support to SMU students annually who meet program eligibility criteria. Participants receive academic support services and participate in research and graduate school workshops. Participants also participate in the McNair Summer Research Institute that includes a research methods course and culminates in the execution of an undergraduate research project. The project serves 26 SMU students annually. Two projects (STEM & SOAR) were awarded for the new grant cycle from 2017 to 2022. These two grants serve 124 students primarily in Dallas ISD high schools.

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Examining the Validity of Curriculum-based Standardized Learning and Assessment System

PI: Dr. Paul Yovanoff
September 2017 - August 2022

This is a 3-year project funded by Istation. This project investigates the validity and other psychometric properties of curriculum-based standardized learning and assessment systems in order to assist their effort on psychometric designs and analyses, such as test design, test equating, item calibration and growth model analysis.

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Measuring Early Mathematical Reasoning Skills: Developing Tests of Numeric Relational Reasoning and Spatial Reasoning National Science Foundation

National Science Foundation (NSF)
(Award No. 1721100)
PI: Dr. Leanne Ketterlin Geller
September 2017 - August 2021

The primary purpose of the Measuring Early Mathematical Reasoning Skills project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is to develop the Measures of Mathematical Reasoning Skills system comprised of two universal screening tools: Tests of Numeric Relational Reasoning (T-NRR) and Tests of Spatial Reasoning (T-SR). These screeners will measure students' abilities in two foundational and predictive mathematics constructs, numeric relational reasoning and spatial reasoning, in Grades K-2. These screeners will assist teachers in understanding and monitoring their students' numeric relational reasoning and spatial reasoning abilities, leading to informed instructional decisions and curricular interventions.

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Upward Bound Classic Projects

U.S. Dept. of Education
PI: Dr. David Deggs
Classic I & III: September 2017 - August 2022
Classic II: June 2017 - May 2022

Upward Bound is a pre-collegiate program that works with students through high school to prepare for college by providing academic support services. Upward Bound support services include high school course tutoring, preparation for SAT and STAAR, high school and initial college course advising, financial aid and scholarship application assistance, and career planning. Three projects (Classic I, II, & III) were awarded for the new grant cycle from 2017 to 2022. These three grants serve 225 students primarily in Dallas ISD high schools.

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Upward Bound Math Science Projects

U.S. Dept. of Education
PI: Dr. David Deggs
STEM: September 2017 - August 2022
SOAR: September 2017 - August 2022

Upward Bound Math Science is also a pre-collegiate program that works with students through high school to prepare for college. Upward Bound Math Science services are similar to Upward Bound and are designed to help students recognize and develop their potential to excel in math and science. Students are provided hands-on learning experiences in classes such as engineering, robotics, biomedical sciences, 3-D printing, and information technology. Two projects (STEM & SOAR) were awarded for the new grant cycle from 2017 to 2022. These two grants serve 124 students primarily in Dallas ISD high schools.

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Improving Response to Intervention in Students With or At Risk of Reading Disabilities

U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health (NIH) / Vanderbilt University
PI: Dr. Stephanie Al Otaiba
August 2017 - July 2021

The Mindset study, funded by a National Institutes of Health grant, seeks to examine a reading intervention for fourth grade students with reading disabilities that integrates the psychosocial component of mindset with the academic component of reading. Specifically, we will examine the extent to which integrating mindset improves student response to reading intervention.

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Comparison of Traditional vs. Virtual Simulation-enhanced Training for Scaling the Cervical Cancer Surgery in Zambia

King’s College London / Medical Research Council
PI: Dr. Eric Bing
Co-PI: Dr. Tony Cuevas
April 2017 - Ongoing

The Virtual Reality Surgery Simulator project aims to reduce the time and cost required to train surgeons by using an innovative virtual reality simulation designed to run on off-the-shelf video gaming equipment. The immersive surgery simulator is designed to help trainees acquire the psychomotor skills, sensory acuity, and cognitive planning required to perform complex surgical tasks. When combined with clinical training, this technology has the potential to significantly reduce the time and cost of achieving surgical proficiency in resource-constrained settings. Learn more here.

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Education Talent Search Projects

U.S. Dept. of Education
PI: Dr. David Deggs, Project LAUNCH, Project LIFT
September 2016 - August 2021

Education Talent Search (ETS) identifies and assists high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have the potential to succeed in higher education. ETS program staff provide academic advising, career planning and guidance, and mentoring services to students. The program is designed to support students as they graduate from high school and transition to college. ETS staff also assist students complete financial aid applications and manage the college application process. The program serves a total of 1,000 students annually between two projects (Project LAUNCH & Project LIFT).

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Project CONNECT: Creating the Ongoing Network Needed to Engage Communities and Teachers

U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA)
PI: Dr. Brenna Rivers
September 2016 - August 2021

This $2 million project, funded by the Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), seeks to increase the number of ESL-certified teachers in the Dallas Independent School District (DISD). Over the next five years, Project CONNECT will prepare 180 pre-service and in-service teachers by offering on-site graduate courses focused on English Learner instruction and family outreach into an area of Dallas called The School Zone (TSZ), an established coalition formed among the School of Education at SMU, the Dallas Independent School District, and 29 non-profit community providers. We will work with families at the community centers, and teachers will create a publicly available website featuring ideas for how to engage with multilingual resources about teaching and family collaboration.

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Project FOCUS: Exploring Response to Intervention with a Focus on Students Receiving Tier 3 and Special Education for Reading Disabilities

Southern Methodist University / U.S. Dept. of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES)
PI: Dr. Stephanie Al Otaiba
Co-PIs: Dr. Jill Allor, Dr. Paul Yovanoff, Dr. Aki Kamata
July 2016 - July 2021

This project, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (Goal 1), aims to identify and examine a key set of malleable variables (those that can be changed by the school) that are associated with outcomes for students in Tier 3 or in special education with reading disabilities. The study is being conducted in more than 7 states in collaboration with faculty and doctoral scholars from the National Center for Leadership in Intensive Intervention. The team of SMU-based researchers includes PI Dr. Stephanie Al Otaiba, Co-PIs Dr. Jill Allor, Dr. Paul Yovanoff, and Dr. Aki Kamata, as well as Dr. Brenna Rivas, Dr. Francesca Jones, Dr. Pooja Shivraj, Margaret Pyffer, Dominique Lyons, Damaris Florez, and Miriam Ortiz. Click here for a video describing the project.

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Project Motion Capture

University of Wisconsin Madison / The Guildhall at SMU / U.S. Dept. of Education, Institute of Education Sciences (IES)
PI: Dr. Mitchel Nathan (University of Wisconsin Madison)
Co-PIs: Dr. Candace Walkington, Dr. Peter Steiner (University of Wisconsin Madison)
July 2016 - July 2021

This project, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (Goal 1: Exploration), seeks to create a theory of embodied mathematical cognition for geometry learning. Specifically, this project examines how a Kinect-based video game can direct players to make arm motions that capture key geometric ideas and relations. The game includes a storyline where players encounter a mysterious tribe, and must form specific arm motions, detected by the Kinect camera, and then solve related geometry problems. The theory is that these directed actions will lead students to make their own co-speech dynamic gestures that show geometric transformations and relations. The team of researchers include Dr. Mitchell Nathan from the University of Wisconsin Madison, who is the Principal Investigator (PI) and his Co-PIs, Dr. Candace Walkington at Southern Methodist University and Dr. Peter Steiner at UW.

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Research, Data Collection and Analysis using the CLASS® Tool

Dallas Independent School District (DISD)
PI: Dr. Annie Wright
Co-PI: Dylan Farmer
September 2015 - Ongoing

DallasISD’s Early Learning Department and SMU’s Center on Research and Evaluation (CORE) are engaged in a longitudinal research-practice partnership aimed at supporting quality early childhood educational experiences. CLASS observations are conducted by CORE, and rapid feedback of actionable data is allowing the Early Learning Department, instructional specialists and campus leadership to provide targeted coaching to early elementary teachers (PreK to 2nd grade). This ongoing data collection also allows CORE to document how quality is changing semester over semester and year over year and to document the longer-term implications of sustained early childhood quality for student outcomes.


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