Students from the CU Summer Scholars program participate in the more active portion of the VEnvI project.
Image Credit: Alison Leonard

A research team comprised of students and faculty from the Clemson University College of Education and College of Engineering and Science have found that unorthodox methods of instruction that remove students from their chairs and get them moving can be just as effective as traditional teaching in the realm of computational thinking. The National Science Foundation recently recognized the research team, Virtual Environment Interactions (VEnvI), for its work on a video highlighting VEnvI. The foundation recognized the video as a Presenter’s Choice in its 2016 video showcase, “Advancing STEM Learning for All: Sharing Cutting Edge Work and Community Discourse.”

Dr. Alison Leonard, assistant professor of arts and creativity at Clemson University and co-principal investigator of VEnvI, said the project’s results strongly suggest these teaching methods are effective. She considers the video’s accolades as further evidence that it is hard to deny fresh, unique teaching methods when they are proven to work.

“Our video, ‘Learning Computational Thinking Through Creative Movement,’ shows research and learning in action, and we are honored to receive recognition for broadening perspectives in education,” Leonard said. “We want to reveal how computer programming can be fun and engaging for those who might perceive it to be boring or difficult.”

The National Science Foundation’s online showcase event included facilitated discussions of each video, and several videos received either public, presenter or facilitator recognition. The VEnvI team’s video was singled out from 156 videos because of the project’s unique approach to challenging material.

“Receiving Presenter’s Choice was especially encouraging,” Leonard said. “We were recognized by our fellow researchers, and it said a great deal when our peers chose to acknowledge the work we’ve done.”


Graduate student Nikeetha Dsouza (standing) is part of the VEnvI team and helps students translate their dance moves to a computer avatar.
Image Credit: Alison Leonard

The VEnvI programming software allows users to design and program a virtual avatar that performs a sequence of movements in a three-dimensional, virtual environment. Programmers first learn some of the dance moves available to them before getting the chance to recreate them in the virtual world. They are then able to perform alongside their avatar or “dance battle” the avatar.

Computational concepts such as sequencing, looping and conditionals are taught through programming and choreographing character movements and sequences. The project encourages students “to move to think” and spend just as much time on the dance floor as they do in front of the computer screen, Leonard said.

The VEnvI project is the brain child of Dr. Shaundra Daily, associate professor and director of the Digital Arts and Sciences Program at the University of Florida. Daily recruited Leonard and Drs. Sabarish Babu and Sophie Jörg from the Clemson University School of Computing for the project. Students from Clemson University and the University of Florida have also played a key role in the project’s success.

The National Science Foundation’s 2016 video showcase was held online in late May. It was hosted by and included submissions from seven NSF-funded resource centers, including MSPnet, CADRE, CIRCL, CAISE, STELAR, CS10K Community and ARC.