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Historic building to host high-tech Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning

In the coming weeks, two years of construction buzz around Building 160 will finally subside, paving the way for this prime piece of campus real estate to become home to its newest occupant -- the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning (SCIL).

The turn-of-the-century building originally was home to the university's first library. In 1949, it became the Law School and, most recently, it housed the Department of Political Science. It will reopen this fall as Wallenberg Hall, with an official inauguration scheduled for Oct. 24.

Building 160's exterior still will mirror the neighboring sandstone buildings. On the inside, however, it will look like nothing else on the Quad: It has been redesigned to support state-of-the-art technology that will help researchers push the boundaries of education from kindergarten on up.

"It's about researching and inventing the future of learning," said education Professor Roy Pea, SCIL's co-director. Stig Hagstrom, professor emeritus of materials science and engineering and co-director of SCIL, said that Stanford wants to help guide that future. "Rather than just watch and see how things develop, we want to take an active part," he said.

That may sound like an ambitious goal, but it's one for which Pea and Hagstrom are particularly qualified.


The science of learning

Hagstrom is former director of Stanford's Center for Materials Research and former chancellor of the Swedish university system. He returned to campus in 1999 to help establish the Wallenberg Global Learning Network, which links Stanford researchers with colleagues in Sweden and Germany working on joint projects in the sciences, humanities and medicine.

Pea, who arrived on campus last fall from SRI International, where he directed the Center for Technology in Learning for five years, has spent most of his professional career studying the correlation between cognition, technology and learning. Previously, he was dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. He is co-author of How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (National Academy Press, 2000).

"There have been dramatic advances over the last 20 to 30 years in the scientific understanding of how people learn," he said. "These are not often reflected in educational practices, either in the lower or higher education sector. We want to contribute to and build on the knowledge that advances the science of how people learn."

What sets SCIL apart from other research centers, according to Hagstrom, is that it will focus on the entire spectrum of formal education. "The real theme is lifelong learning," he said. "We will try to erase the boundaries between the phases of education. If we do that we see the whole chain."

Such an integrated approach will help to prepare students more effectively for future challenges in the world, Pea said. "What it means to be an educated citizen changes over time," he said.

For example, Hagstrom said, critics complain that literacy levels are declining among younger people. "But they usually define that as understanding text," he said. "People don't usually recognize that the literacy of understanding images has really increased. An image contains so much more information than text. Human beings, with our eyes and ears, are much more used to integrated inputs. Text is still very important but it's important to see that there is educational value in other media as well."

During Spring Quarter, Pea taught a School of Education graduate seminar called "Visualizations in Learning." The course looked at how the latest technological tools are changing how people learn, think, reason and argue, he said. Projects researching computer visualization and modeling and multimedia research tools are just some of the fields in which the center will focus.

SCIL projects tend to be partnerships between those who study the science of learning from educational and cognitive or developmental psychological perspectives, Pea said. "You work to understand a learning problem, you create a learning environment based on your best available theory and you study the results," he said. These results are then used to improve how a subject is taught.

SCIL works with researchers to study why some subjects -- ranging from geometrical optics to writing clearly -- are hard for students to grasp and then devise better ways to teach such topics.

Instead of slapping the latest technological tools onto old teaching methods -- such as shoehorning use of the web into an old-style English composition class -- SCIL wants to focus on what Pea calls the "transformative use of technology" using technology to do things that couldn't be accomplished without it.

One example, Pea explained, is a computer simulation called SimCalc that has been developed to introduce middle school students to the core concepts of calculus. One simulation shows two clowns walking at different rates and is used to create a graph depicting, in real time, the velocity and position of each of the clowns.

"It turns out that's a very powerful approach for kids to understand graphing," Pea explained. "Without interactive computer technology, you can't create a simulation model, and you can't connect the model to the graph. In the old days, you had graph paper, you collected data, and you had to plot the points with a pencil. It took a long time to do and it was hard to understand."

A century ago, only 5 percent of students who went to public school took algebra, Pea said. Today, about 80 percent of students study the subject. But only 5 percent take calculus.

"Why did that happen?" he asked. "A lot of it is because of changes in jobs and improvements in pedagogy. We hope that in 20 years, 85 percent of kids by high school will take calculus by using computer tools that will make very difficult concepts accessible.

"That's what we mean about inventing the future of learning," he said. "It's about making more accessible to a broader group of people things that are hard to learn by reason."


$15 million Wallenberg grant

Wallenberg Hall is so named because the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation and the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation of Sweden made a $15 million grant to the university in 1999. Part of the funding went to renovate Building 160, and part went to support projects that explored the use of technology in education, first in the Stanford Learning Lab, which closed this spring, and now in SCIL.

SCIL (pronounced "skill") is the university's 10th independent center on campus and falls under the mandate of Charles Kruger, vice provost and dean of research and graduate policy. Pea said SCIL will focus on interdisciplinary research. Executive Director Sam Steinhardt said he envisions the center will be managed as a "start-up" business, ensuring that it grows as rapidly as funding allows but in a sustainable manner. About $3.5 million of the Wallenberg gift will be used for collaborative projects with universities in Sweden and Germany through the Wallenberg Global Learning Network, and a university grant provides additional support, he said.

Beyond university and Wallenberg funding, researchers from various disciplines across the university will apply for grants from agencies such as the National Science Foundation and private foundations, and government and industry contracts, Steinhardt said. Five grants have already been awarded, and several more are in development. "That's a pretty healthy pipeline for a new center," he said.


By Lisa Trei

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