This is not your parents' classroom of finger paintings and wooden desks lined up to face the blackboard.
In the new SMALLab -- or Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Laboratory -- at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, there is artwork by Andy Warhol; a black ceiling and walls painted green, purple and blue. There are no desks; instead there are ottomans designed to look like dice.
Still, the signature 21st century aspect in this new classroom is the use of motion-capture technology to track students' movements in 3D as they learn in an interactive and multimodal manner.
"When kids go home they are engaged in this kind of technology," said Elizabeth Forward School District superintendent Bart Rocco. "We want kids to want to come here and to find it interesting and engaging."
In an eighth-grade pre-biology class that is focusing on ecology, SMALLab fits right into the lesson about understanding interactions in complex systems.
"The goal was to be able to identify the difference between a producer, which is any organism that can create its own food as through photosynthesis, and a consumer, any organism that needs to consume a producer to get energy," explained science teacher Ward Cochenour.
The lessons begin on a movable, foam-rubber mat with images of balls -- representing particles -- that are transmitted from a ceiling-mounted projector connected to a computer.
Solid colored balls represent plants and bacteria and any other organism that can produce its own food, while striped balls represent consumers. Green balls represent a type of species that multiplies quickly.
Score is kept as students choose how many balls they want to contribute to the playing surface, with an end goal of striking the right combination of producers and consumers to balance the ecosystem. Rules are configured that define the interactions between each of the particles.
Students watch for interactions from which they form hypotheses. Student pairs take to the floor with wands that activate motion censoring as they try to manipulate the particle movement to test their own hypotheses.
"It involves getting kids' legs and arms up and moving instead of sitting," assistant superintendent Todd E. Keruskin said.
Tyler Breda, 13, of Elizabeth Township said he learned there is a need to balance the food chain as organisms populate quickly.
Ethan McLay, 13, of Elizabeth Township, said he found the experience more engaging than merely reading from a textbook.
Colten Fitterer, 13, of Elizabeth Township said his hypothesis was that whoever had the most balls in the field would come out on top. But he learned that a certain ball can multiply.
Colten, Kynzie Webb, 13, of Elizabeth Township learned that simply striking a numerical balance among balls is not the key to a robust ecosystem.
Funding for the project is from a $20,000 grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit as part of a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) initiative.
The package purchased by the district includes other SMALLab scenarios similar in operation to the particle interaction game, but designed to facilitate learning in subject matter such as disease transmission, storyline scenarios, fractions, spring mass, geology, wavelengths and more.
A team of six graduate students from the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University is working to create additional simulations.
Mr. Rocco said SMALLab is an extremely effective tool in that it brings education to life.
"There is more questioning, more discovery learning, and more leading kids to what they need to know," he said.
Information: www.smallablearning.com.education - neigh_south
Margaret Smykla, freelance: firstname.lastname@example.org.