Lehigh Students Developing Mobile Geometry App for Pre-Schoolers

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Lehigh University students team up with school psychology professor on interdisciplinary early childhood education project aimed at helping pre-school age children develop geometry skills

Lehigh University mountaintop students

Luke Zhang ’16, Brittany Kuder ’14GR and Faye Sheppard ’18 are working to develop an app that provides a meaningful and accessible block-building experience for children. Photo by Christa Neu

The data they collect will help Zhang, a computer science major, to develop an app that will replicate a child’s three-dimensional block-building experience on a tablet or mobile device.

This summer, two Lehigh University undergraduates—Faye Sheppard and Luke Zhang—and one doctoral student—Brittany Kuder are teaming up with associate professor of school psychology Robin Hojnoski on a project for Lehigh’s Mountaintop initiative to develop a mobile app to give pre-school age children a meaningful and accessible block-building experience—without actual blocks.

When young children are playing with blocks, they’re doing more than building towers: they’re developing mathematical skills and spatial sense. Incorporating geometric solids such as cones, cylinders and spheres can deepen the experience.

“We know a lot about kids’ development in number sense but far less about kids’ development of shape and geometry and spatial sense,” says Hojnoski, an associate professor of school psychology whose research focuses on mathematical development. “Three-dimensional shapes are really important, and how kids use shapes ... is really related to spatial sense: being able to have a design in mind and then mentally rotate to form that design and then make it happen. Those things are really important to overall spatial sense and spatial development, which are key skills related to STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields.”

“We’ve been looking at block building this year in the Bethlehem Area School District preschools, and we started talking about developing a tablet application that would allow children to build with blocks,” says Kuder, a doctoral student in school psychology. “We wanted ours to be data-driven and research-based. ... There are a few apps that offer building with more than just cubes, and a lot of them are based on fantasy worlds. We want one that’s more explicitly educational.”

Under Hojnoski’s mentorship, Kuder and Sheppard, a psychology and pre-med student, are spending time in local preschool and child care classrooms, observing children as they build with blocks and administering tasks related to spatial abilities and Panamath, which measures number sense. They’re also looking at other developmental areas such as self-regulation and vocabulary.

“We basically want to see what child abilities relate to their geometric abilities, what they’re doing with blocks [and] how complex their structures are,” says Kuder.

The data they collect will help Zhang, a computer science major, to develop an app that will replicate a child’s three-dimensional block-building experience on a tablet or mobile device.

When manipulating real blocks, children aren’t able to change the size of a block to make it work for a structure; instead, they must select a different one or adjust the structure accordingly. The same would apply to the app, which should help students develop problem-solving skills.

“If they’re trying to build a bridge and the two pieces are not close enough, but somehow—miraculously—the top still stays, well, that’s still not going to assist them when they’re really trying to build a structure,” says Hojnoski.

Getting there is more challenging than it may seem. For Zhang, the project presents an opportunity to develop new skills while reinforcing existing ones.

“There are many exciting aspects to this work, from a cross-disciplinary perspective,” says Michael Spear, assistant professor of computer science and engineering and consultant for the team. “Obviously this is not a cookie-cutter project, from a programming perspective. It involves mobile devices, 3D physics and multi-touch. But beyond the raw technical challenges, there’s an exciting user experience/design aspect to the work. The program will ultimately be used by children who have not yet learned how to read. ... When the main user of a program is a young child, many of the standard approaches that we normally use just don’t work anymore. You need to re-think the interface entirely.”

The team hopes to eventually bring the completed app back out into the field to share with children, gather their feedback to improve the app and investigate the app’s value in terms of other skills.

Another possible outlet for sharing the app is the DaVinci Science Center in Allentown, PA where Hojnoski works with preschoolers on the development of shape knowledge as part of National Living Laboratory initiative, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Science Center is a perfect place to bring technology and basic learning together, says Hojnoski.

Ultimately, the team would like to learn what might be gained or lost by utilizing technology in this manner. They might also use the data they collect from the app itself to advance knowledge about child development.

The software Zhang is developing will “generate data about human behavior, which then needs to be analyzed,” says Spear. “The program has the ability to make thousands of measurements per second, producing data at a granularity that allows completely new perspectives on how children learn…Ultimately, we’ll be able to answer behavioral questions that are too intrusive to measure otherwise. ... We can superimpose a hundred children’s behaviors and identify common patterns.”

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About Lehigh
Lehigh is a premier private residential research university. We are ranked in the top tier of national research universities each year, and our four colleges have earned a reputation for their entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary approach to learning. Today, more than 75,000 alumni from around the world have earned a Lehigh diploma, and nearly 97 percent of last year’s graduates have gone on to find career-related opportunities just six months after leaving campus.

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Lori Friedman
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