Atilla Sulker: Developing New Forms of Learning Assessment

Since my freshmen year, I have been the Chief Strategy Officer of Blue Ocean Discover, a local EdTech startup. In addition to myself, our team consists of two graduate students (one in mechanical engineering, the other in instructional design), an entrepreneurship student, a chemistry Ph.D. and former researcher at the MagLab. The company’s overarching mission is to revitalize K-5 STEM education by making it extremely intuitive and exciting – kids should not be “trained” at an early age to be averse towards learning challenging subjects! Namely, our current project, dubbed the “MagShark,” is an immersive learning experience for K-1 students driven by augmented reality (AR) and storyboard, in which kids learn about magnetism.

AR has tremendous potential in the education industry. Dull textbook topics can quite literally “come to life,” in very intuitive ways. Otherwise difficult to visualize 2D pictures can be superimposed onto the physical realm, and students can interact with these objects. With the interactivity of AR, K-1 students can really hone in on their investigative skills. Such skills are not only directly applicable to STEM, but very much transferable to other subjects. Additionally, this form of explorative or “inquiry-based learning” facilitates a far more enriching learning environment. Students gradually learn to walk on their own feet, while simultaneously “learning how to learn” with fellow peers, teachers, parents, and the like. This form of “community-based learning,” in which parents and teachers are, by design, brought into the learning process, greatly increases learning retention. Thus, AR brings a suite of benefits to teaching.

But AR’s capacity to revolutionize education goes beyond the realm of simply teaching – it can be used for assessing learning as well. And this is the trajectory to be taken by my research project. Test anxiety is a common problem for many students. I can certainly empathize, as I was in this boat once, especially during high school. Part of the problem is that our schools – the very institutions designed to facilitate learning – are, in effect, implicitly encouraging students to become averse towards taking on challenging subjects (e.g., those related to STEM). They simply teach and test to the book, but never encourage kids to go “above and beyond.” But imagine if kids could genuinely release their breaks and let their curiosities guide them, without being reprimanded for “not following the worksheet.”

Imagine if we could do away with traditional bubble in testing, making learning far more dynamic and experiential, while still collecting good metrics on learning retention. It may seem implausible, but it has already been pioneered by professors at our College of Education. Dr. Valerie Shute and Dr. Russell Almond have developed the concept of “stealth assessments” and evidence-centered design (ECD). These design frameworks allow educators to collect data on the learning retention of students in a seamless fashion – based on observing the actions of the students. Students do not even know they’re being tested!

Thus, the objective of my project will be twofold: 1. How can efficacious stealth assessments be designed? What objectives can we test students on and what observables “validate” that the students have learned these objectives?; 2. How much instructional scaffolding do students need? (Instructional scaffolding refers to help instructors give students in completing a given task successfully – amongst these include teacher interventions, hints given to students, etc.). I will be working closely with Dr. Almond and our startup team.

This summer will consist of getting multiple data collection trials at various different local schools and informal educational organizations. Most trials will likely take place in summer camp environments. I will stick to Montissori-esque schools, as they best facilitate the aforementioned concepts of interactive and explorative learning. As of now, I am still working on recruiting schools and parents interested in the study and completing the pertinent IRB forms. Trials will likely take place in the later summer. Objectives to be tested will be solidified in the early summer.

Ultimately, I aim to truly leverage the capabilities of newly emerging AR technology with this research project. By pushing the edge of the envelope, AR can become an extremely powerful teaching and assessment tool.

The pandemic has made more manifest deep problems long present in the education system. I find it shameful that in the 21st century, in response to a pandemic – some schools have sent students home with worksheets over formative experiences. Such a happening is symptomatic of a society whose perception of the importance of being a life-long learner has shifted. This needs to change! Our education system is in dire need, not of reform, but revolution. Through this study (and many more to come) and my leadership role at Blue Ocean Discover, I aim to spearhead this revolution!

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