Virtual Worlds Re-Imagine Learning

The influence of digital media has changed the way young people learn, play and socialize. As a result, researchers at Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia (UGA) are partnering to develop a 3-D virtual learning environment that combines creative avatars and social networking to help high school and college students with disabilities to succeed in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs. The universities will be joined by Georgia Perimeter College and the school systems of Georgia’s Greene, Clarke and Gwinnett counties.

Funded by a 5-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s Research in Disabilities Education program, the Georgia STEM Accessibility Alliance (GSAA) virtual world will provide a one-of-a-kind Mentoring Island where students will meet and interact with mentors to address their STEM education needs. Students will engage using avatars, or simulated representations of their physical selves, which they can manipulate to be whatever they desire. They will have the option to simulate their disability realities (e.g., wheelchairs for mobility, orientation tools for blindness, etc.) or create a personal avatar that is entirely different from their physical self. GSAA is building a virtual environment that exemplifies the best of accessible and universal design in the real world to house the virtual spaces for access to virtual mentoring and teaching, social networking, academic support, transition assistance, and research participation. GSAA teachers and faculty will also be able to virtually access training modules on universal design and evidence-based teaching strategies for their classrooms and labs.

The project will serve as a pipeline between secondary and postsecondary institutions to strengthen students with disabilities’ capacities to access and succeed in STEM programs across critical junctures: high school, two-year college, four-year college, and graduate school. GSAA seeks to increase the number of students with disabilities enrolling in STEM classes and majors; increase retention and graduation rates; and increase successful entry rate into STEM graduate programs.

Virtual worlds can be especially powerful for building communities of users. GSAA seeks to tap the full power of this new and vigorous learning environment to unite students, mentors and teachers that would not be able to reach each other in the real world. This digital media model is an innovative approach to teaching and learning which will revolutionize approaches to STEM education for students and serve as a state and national model for purposes of replication.

Potential Impact for Schools in Georgia and the Nation
GSAA efforts are focused on Georgia pipeline schools and students with disabilities, but outreach and dissemination efforts extend nationwide. The GSAA virtual world will provide broad impact through their applicability to students and faculty who are separated geographically and through its potential to gather national/international networking of STEM stakeholders. The digital media GSAA model will be scalable to other secondary and postsecondary institutions throughout the nation. Its focus on universal design and accessible materials delivered via virtual communities will make STEM education successful for many students with disabilities and will provide best practices learning environments.

Principal Investigator for the Georgia Institute for Technology: Robert Todd

Principal Investigator for the University of Georgia: Noel Gregg,; UGA Co-PI: Michael Hannafin,
Title: Georgia STEM Accessibility Alliance (GSAA)
Funding: National Science Foundation, $1,479,128


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For More Information Contact

David Morton
CATEA, College of Architecture
Contact David Morton