Professor Jim Slotta on space, classroom technologies, and learning communities

By Lisa Smith
March 22, 2021
Professor Jim Slotta

In his March 4 talk, Professor Slotta presented a series of studies in which the physical classroom is integrated with learning designs. “What is it about place?” Slotta asked. “How does classroom space matter? And how can we design curriculum so that students work together as a learning community?”

Slotta directs the ENCORE lab, a team of students, designers and developers investigating new models of collective inquiry in science education from K-12. His projects are situated in technology-enabled classrooms that encourage movement and collaboration by design. Most importantly, he explores new forms of student inquiry within classrooms where the teacher plays a critical role within the learning community not as a “guide on the side”, but as a “mentor at the center”.

In one project, known as Wallcology, grade 5-6 students in OISE’s Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study viewed digital simulations of insect ecosystems on “wallscopes” -- computer screens that would provide “X-ray vision” into insect colonies hidden behind the classroom walls.  Students interacted with this continuously-running virtual ecosystem in real time, much as they would if doing field research. They learned about the insects’ habitat, food sources, predators, life cycle, and the effect of natural disasters on their colonies. Students’ observations served as a dynamic knowledge base continually subject to revision and development.

Another project called Evoroom took classroom technology one step further to create a truly immersive experience. Students in this 12-week high school biology unit found themselves in a cave-like environment where they experienced the sights and sounds of a rainforest ecosystem in Southeast Asia over evolutionary history. The students’ inquiry task was to locate plants and animals, figure out their evolutionary descendants and antecedents, and collectively construct a cladogram of all species across a 200 million year time span. “A smart classroom creates new possibilities for integrating the physical environment with the curriculum,” Slotta said. “There are analytics going on in the background. The room ‘knows’ who is there and can ‘respond’ to what is going on. The room itself plays a role in orchestrating inquiry.”

Slotta emphasized that simpler classroom designs can also engage students in collective modes of inquiry. The classroom floor, for example, could be construed as a geographical region, with an ‘aquifer’ mapped below it. Students could map out the aquifer in order to decide where to put an industrial plant or waste water treatment system.

All of these projects provide opportunities to study a “learning community” approach to curriculum design and learning. “Jim’s work exemplifies a deep interconnection and interaction among design, curriculum, pedagogy, and curriculum itself,” said Michele Peterson-Badali, Associate Dean, Research, International & Innovation.

When students work as a community, “they make collective progress on understanding the value of ‘you’ and your efforts to my learning,” Slotta explained. “This entails rethinking elements of instruction and of moving the focus from the individual learner to the dynamics of community and collaboration.” By engaging in collective inquiry, students learn in ways that are uniquely dependent on peers, teachers, technology, and the physical classroom environment.

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