CLEMSON — Shannon can do the “Cha Cha Slide,” but her shuffle across the computer screen is a little wooden as if she isn’t quite sure of herself. The virtual character will be rebooted over the next year as part of a Clemson University research project that could help explain whether real-world movement helps students learn.

The project builds on a growing body of research that suggests we think not only with our brains but also with our bodies, a concept that scientists call “embodied cognition.”

Fifth- and sixth- grade girls will learn steps in real life and then program the computer character to do the same thing. Their comprehension will be compared to that of a group instructed not to move as they program the character.

Clemson researchers also hope their educational strategies will spark the girls’ interest in computer science and other technological fields in which women are underrepresented.

The three-year project has been backed by a $579,673 grant from the National Science Foundation.

A pilot program showed that students moved their bodies as they worked through what they wanted Shannon to do. But researchers still have questions about how much movement is linked to learning computational thinking.

The computer character Shannon will be rebooted over the next year as part of Clemson University research into whether movement helps students learn.

The computer character, Shannon, will be rebooted over the next year as part of Clemson University research into whether movement helps students learn.thing.

Shaundra Bryant Daily, assistant professor in Clemson’s School of Computing, said computational thinking isn’t limited to computer programming. It can be used whenever students have to identify a problem and take steps to solve it, she said.

“The general principles are applicable to any field,” Bryant Daily said.

The research is a collaboration between the College of Engineering and Science and the College of Health, Education and Human Development.

Alison E. Leonard, assistant professor of arts and creativity in the university’s Eugene T. Moore School of Education, said that researchers want to see if teaching students to approach computer programming as an active, physical task will affect their ability to understand and engage with it.

“We move to think,” she said. “Movement fuels learning, and has great cognitive as well as emotional, social and cultural power.”

The project will begin with an overhaul of Shannon, who now has 10 moves and was built in educational software called Alice.

Shannon will be replaced with a range of characters that will allow students to choose defining features, such as gender and outfits. The theory is that the better students can relate to a character, the more they will learn.

Sophie Joerg, a computer science assistant professor, will use a motion-capture system to record actual human movements to create and evaluate characters with different levels of realism.

The virtual environment where students will program the computer character will be designed by Sabarish Babu, an assistant professor of computer science.

Researchers haven’t decided if they will stick with the “Cha Cha Slide” or try something different. The “Cha Cha Slide” has worked well so far because the lyrics include instructions on when to clap, stomp, hop and step left or right, Bryant Daily said.

Researchers see choreography and computer programming as a natural fit. Both involve sequencing and repeating steps and doing them in unison, as small pieces are integrated into a larger whole.

In the second year of the study, researchers plan to continue to hone the curriculum, characters and virtual environment. They expect to begin to evaluating how the program is working about midway through the study.

Leonard said that as the world becomes more digital, the demand for people who can work in technological fields will increase.

“Students need to be equipped with computational thinking skills and have access to that knowledge in schools so they can make an impact in these fields,” she said.


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1344228. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.