Maryland Today: New Teaching Innovation Grants to Support Surge of Educational Tech (ft. Caro Williams-Pierce)

Annie Krakower | Maryland Today - April 18, 2024

Awards for 24 Projects Fund Use of AI, Gamification, and More in the Classroom

Drawn graphic mural of people and technology devices

While students in medical school can practice their new skills in controlled environments—whether that means operating on cadavers or using high-tech simulations—Associate Clinical Professor Tracy Zeeger didn’t see as many options in public health.

“Folks are developing and designing interventions, programs, communication materials, screening tools, surveys,” she said, “and the only way to gather feedback is through pilot testing or direct engagement with a community.”

Now, she and fellow Assistant Dean of the Office of Public Health Practice and Community Engagement Sylvette La Touche-Howard are co-leading an interdisciplinary team in developing an artificial intelligence-powered community simulator, a large language model that will provide responses based on the demographic and geographic information that students enter.

The project is just one of 24 recipients of the latest Teaching Innovation Grants, awarded to instructors to help boost teaching practices. Part of the University of Maryland’s strategic plan to reimagine learning, the program is awarding $1.3 million in grants in 2024 to emphasize the intersection of education and technology, including AI, virtual reality and gamification.

“The ultimate goal is for faculty to experiment, integrate technology into their courses, increase engagement and expand collaboration,” said Marcio A. Oliveira, assistant vice president of academic innovation and technology.

Three multi-year projects are focused on prototyping or testing the adoption of educational technology. The program will also fund 21 one-year projects, which explore evidence-based digital teaching approaches. In all, the grants are projected to bolster 73 courses with over 32,000 student seats across 10 academic units.

Besides the “AI-Powered Community Simulator” led by Zeeger, the other large projects are “NarraSpaceXR,” led by English Professor Marisa Parham, and “Read, Watch, Play,” led by information studies Assistant Professor Caro Williams-Pierce. Parham’s project strives to make immersive storytelling technologies—like augmented, virtual and extended reality—accessible across disciplines, using them to demonstrate how the experiences of marginalized communities can lead to broader human understanding.

Williams-Pierce’s gamification-focused project is creating a user-friendly digital platform for playful learning experiences, which instructors can tailor to their disciplines.

“This is just a really great opportunity to invest in the technology that’s going to enhance the skills of not only our students, but those that are practicing out in the field,” Zeeger said.

The one-year projects will also incorporate a wide range of educational tech, whether that’s adding computer simulations to biology courses, training students in AI-assisted journalism, or using gamified scenarios for language learning.

“It’s not just what they learn, but how they learn it,” said grant awardee Bronson Hui, assistant professor of second language acquisition, who’s incorporating a superhero-themed game into his courses. “That boosts their motivation, engagement, and (learning) becomes fun.”

The original article by Annie Krakower was published in UMD’s Maryland Today on April 17, 2024.