Research News

Rau awarded NSF grants to help STEM students learn with visual representations

September 06, 2016

UW-Madison’s Martina Rau is the principal investigator on two grants awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) this past summer, with funding for the projects topping $1.1 million.

Each of these projects will focus on how to help students learn with visual representations. Learning in the sciences often relies on visual features that depict information.  Visual representations, for example, could include a pie chart depicting a fraction or a ball-and-stick model portraying chemical molecules.

Rau leads the Learning Representations and Technology Lab on campus, is an assistant professor with the School of Education’s No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology, and holds an affiliate appointment in the Department of Computer Sciences.

Martina Rau
One of the awards from the NSF IUSE program is for a project titled, “Supporting Chemistry Learning with Adaptive Support for Connection Making Between Graphical Representations in a Cognitive Tutoring System.” The award for this project is $593,795.

This award’s abstract notes that while many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) instructors assume that visuals help students learn -- they actually can be confusing if students do not know how the visuals show information.

The goal of this project, the abstract explains, “is to design and study the effectiveness of an educational technology called Chem Tutor to help college chemistry students learn with visuals. The project will determine how Chem Tutor technology can help students learn about visuals in a way that enhances their ability to learn from visuals about complex chemistry knowledge. Specifically, the project will focus on supporting two representation skills: the ability to make sense of how particular visual features illustrate concepts (sense-making) and perceptual fluency with visuals (akin to fluency in a language). The project will investigate how best to combine supports for these two skills in learning about representations, and the technology will also be designed to adapt to individual student's learning progress.”

This project will be conducted in the context of undergraduate chemistry learning at two-year and four-year colleges, including Madison Area Technical College and UW-Madison. The co-principal investigator is UW-Madison’s Judith Burstyn, a faculty member with the Department of Chemistry Department.

Another award from the NSF Cyberlearning program is called, “EXP: Modeling Perceptual Fluency with Visual Representations in an Intelligent Tutoring System for Undergraduate Chemistry.” This project is receiving $540,396.

This project will focuses on fluency in using visual representations and includes co-principal investigators from UW-Madison in Xiaojin Zhu (Computer Sciences) and Robert Nowak (Engineering). Rau will conduct a series of experiments with undergraduate students and chemistry professors to investigate which visual features they pay attention to.

Machine-learning methods will be used to devise of example sequences that will most efficiently help students learn relevant visual features. This program will also use the Chem Tutor intelligent tutoring system that will adapt to an individual student’s learning progress.

“I’m excited that both projects got funded at the same time because they are really synergistic,” Rau explains. “The Cyberlearning project will expand the capability of technologies to adapt to implicit learning, which is currently not possible. This will allow us to create effective interventions for perceptual fluency. The IUSE project will investigate how best to combine interventions for perceptual fluency with interventions that support sense-making. Because both projects are situated in real chemistry courses here on campus and at Madison Area Technical College, they will have a real practical impact on chemistry education.”

Rau adds that both projects show why she enjoys research at the UW-Madison.

“The interdisciplinary perspective that combines psychology, chemistry, computer science and engineering is exactly what we need to do to solve today’s pressing education problems,” she says. “The UW is a thriving place where collaborations across department boundaries are the norm.”