classroom technology Tag

By Maegan Murray

RICHLAND, Wash. –  A Washington State University Tri-Cities education professor has partnered with her father, a software engineer, to develop a fun and hands-on educational tool that will allow students to virtually explore geographic areas, expand their spatial awareness skills and improve overall geoliteracy.

Students at Marcus Whitman Elementary School use PuzzleMap as a classroom resource

Students at Marcus Whitman Elementary School use PuzzleMap as a classroom resource.

National Geographic defines geoliteracy as “the ability to use geographic understanding and geographic reasoning to make far-reaching decisions.” Sarah Newcomer, assistant professor of literacy education at WSU Tri-Cities, said students use the skill in a range of academic fields, in addition to everyday life.

That is why she and her father, Fred Newcomer, created the program, PuzzleMap, which features moveable map elements with interactive clues and images to expand the user’s knowledge of any geographic area.

“With this project, we’re really looking at how this tool supports kids in developing their geographic literacy and spatial reasoning, as there are many kids who prefer to learn that way,” Sarah Newcomer said. “Not all kids may be successful with pencils and paper. It’s a different way of learning and approaching the material, as well as a different modality that they can learn through.”

From GIS to integrated classroom technology

Fred Newcomer spent a year developing the platform. He said he wanted to use his years of experience with geographic information systems in the public safety sector to help address global environmental concerns. The project quickly showed its value for elementary students, thanks to the advisement of his daughter.

A student uses PuzzleMap at Marcus Whitman Elementary School

A student uses PuzzleMap at Marcus Whitman Elementary School.

“My initial intent was to simply make something that other people might find interesting and enjoy doing,” he said. “Games like Tetris, Candy Crush and Pokemon Go have attracted many juvenile and adult players, but they don’t really offer any secondary benefit … When Sarah first saw PuzzleMap, she immediately suggested that it could be a valuable classroom tool.”

Sarah Newcomer worked with her father to create a PuzzleMap of the United States specifically for use at the elementary school level. Students use the program to complete a puzzle by placing a state in its correct spot on a blank map. The individual pieces also feature useful facts ranging from population, to climate, to key industries in each region, which the students can use as clues.

Success in the classroom

This year, Sarah Newcomer and Jonah Firestone, assistant professor of science education and assessment, partnered with two fifth-grade classes at Marcus Whitman Elementary School in Richland and a fifth-grade class at Barbara McClintock STEM Elementary School in Pasco to assess PuzzleMap’s effectiveness in the classroom.

Although data analysis is in the preliminary stages, Newcomer said an initial review of the results indicate that the program helped students retain information at a greater rate than if they hadn’t used the program – and typically by a wide margin.

“We hypothesized that the group that supplemented their regular curriculum with Puzzle map would do better, but we didn’t plan for just how well they would do,” she said. “It just goes to show that adding supplemental resources with the regular curriculum can provide a huge benefit to students.”

Excitement for learning

Most of the students participating in the study said they loved using the program. Students enjoyed exploring both states that were unfamiliar, as well as their favorite states. Other students said they enjoyed competing with themselves to improve their proficiency score.

McKenzie Munn speaks with students at Marcus Whitman Elementary School

McKenzie Munn, a fifth-grade teacher at Marcus Whitman Elementary School, speaks with a couple of her students. Her class was one of the first group to test the viability of PuzzleMap in the classroom.

“I can place all of the states on the map in 1 minute and 40 seconds,” said Divine Salazar, a fifth-grade student at Marcus Whitman. “I even got an app on my phone to study it at home, too.”

McKenzie Munn, a fifth-grade teacher at Marcus Whitman Elementary, said students were more engaged with their geographic curriculum when they completed PuzzleMap in conjunction with their given material.

“This resource is a tool that we can use to supplement everything we were already planning on teaching,” she said. “It is not a replacement and not going to change the way we do social studies, but it is just going to make it better.”

Trevor Dunstan, a technology specialist at McClintock agreed, noting the program “would be an excellent resource for working hands-on with different content areas.”

Future of PuzzleMap

Fred Newcomer said he plans to continue working with his daughter to develop more PuzzleMap content for elementary students and on adding features that will facilitate classroom use. He is currently developing a variety of PuzzleMap ideas to raise environmental awareness, promote public spaces and market regional products. The platform is also being used to highlight the complexities of legislative districting.

The program is available now for schools and other organizations to use. For more information on PuzzleMap and related technology resources, visit

By Maegan Murray

RICHLAND, Wash. – Jonah Firestone, an education professor at Washington State University Tri-Cities, knows that technology is the future of education, which is why he is researching the use of virtual and augmented reality as tools for not only the general classroom, but specifically with special education in the kindergarten through 12th-grade setting.

Virtual reality in the classroom

A student tries out a virtual reality headset as part of research being completed by Jonah Firestone, a professor of education at WSU Tri-Cities. Firestone will complete a study on how the technology may be used in special education.

“With regular video games, you’re looking at a flat screen,” he said. “But with virtual reality, you wear a head set and you can look all around. It’s a 360-degree view up and down and you can see this complete world around you. As kids get more used to using this type of technology and as the price goes down, schools are going to start adopting these because you can now send an entire classroom on a field trip to The Louvre without leaving the classroom.”

Firestone said for subjects like science and history, teachers rely on textbook and stationary images to give students a picture of what they’re talking about as it is expensive to take students to laboratories and settings that are referenced in those lessons. With virtual and augmented reality, however, teachers can bring those settings and projects to the students in the virtual sphere.

“We can use this technology to put children and adults into complete virtual worlds where they can be a cell in the human body, or students can do experiments in physics and chemistry that they couldn’t normally safely do in the classroom setting,” he said. “You can then repeat those over and over again.”

Overcoming learning disabilities

Firestone said virtual and augmented reality have different purposes, but both can be applied as additional tools in the classroom, which could help students who struggle with traditional learning methods.

“We used to talk about this thing called learning theories where certain people were characterized as different types of learners, but that’s not really true,” he said. “We all learn in a variety of different ways. But with the more modes in which we learn, whether it be oral, visual or tactile, the more we’re readily going to learn.”

Virtual reality controllers

Controllers for the HTC Vive virtual reality technology.

Some students may have problems processing information that is given to them orally, or students may have visual disabilities where they have difficulty processing static information like documents with lots of text, he said. Students also may have issues holding their attention for an extended period of time.

“So what virtual and augmented reality do is reinforce learning in ways that helps from a variety of different vectors,” he said. “And realistically, strategies used in special education are good practices for any education setting. We can translate what we learn about these tools into the general classroom setting, as well.”

With virtual reality, students wear a head set where it provides them with a complete 360-degree view of a setting or project that the students can interact with. With augmented reality, students use a device like a tablet or a headset where the device projects an image into the real-world setting. Firestone said a good example of augmented reality is Pokemon Go, where the image of a Pokemon is projected through a screen into the real world.

“We’ve all taken classes where we’ve aced the class, but we have no idea what we’ve learned,” he said. “What we want to accomplish with virtual and augmented reality is a more organic method of learning. This organic method of learning is accomplished through learning by doing.”

Research results so far

Firestone worked with Don McMahon on the WSU Pullman campus to run a study with special education students at the college level who studied bones and skeletons using augmented reality with the help of iPad Minis. They compared what the students learned and absorbed with augmented reality to what they learned and observed from textbooks and the team got great results.

Firestone is now taking that research a step further by applying the same tools to kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms.

Students test out virtual reality

A group of students test out virtual reality headsets. WSU Tri-Cities professor Jonah Firestone will complete a study on how the technology may be used in special education.

“College kids are great, but I am very much interested in how these technologies can be applied to the k-12 setting,” he said. “What we’re currently doing is taking this same process and we’re modifying it for fifth-graders. Then, we’re going to modify it for middle school and high school.”

Firestone said he is using augmented reality to supplement different school lessons, including science where students observe and learn about the human body.

“Imagine looking at a picture of a femur, but with augmented reality, not only do you see a picture of a femur, but it has a voice that defines it for you and then shows you where it is on the human body,” he said.

Firestone is also looking into using virtual reality to immerse the kindergarten through 12th-grade students in an underwater experience called “The Blue.”

“It’s an underwater application where you see whales and you’re in a reef,” he said. “I’m then comparing that to the same information that the students glean from a text.”

Firestone said he’s had great results with the technology so far and that blending the virtual experiences with what students are presented with in a textbook is a winning combination.

“There is no one magic solution for learning, but the more things we can put together, the more kids are going to end up learning,” he said.