Enigma Mobile Literacy Game Research

Focused on improving literacy skills, the SMU Enigma literacy game is a mobile application that helps learners improve their reading skills  when played an average of 60 minutes per week over eight weeks. The customized version of the game was developed by SMU researcher, Dr. Anthony Cuevas, with player options for middle and elementary school students. It was piloted at the Dr. Elba and Domingo Garcia West Dallas STEM School and was initially piloted with middle school students in an afterschool program during Fall 2023.  The Enigma research resulted with positive feedback from students and increases in some literacy measures.

At the request of the school, the Enigma project was extended to Spring 2024 to pilot the game with elementary students in first and second grade. The request came from some of the elementary teachers involved in the middle school pilot who believed the game could help elementary students build their foundational literacy skills. Students play Enigma for 30-45 minutes twice per week after school as part of a structured afterschool program. They play the game as an adventurer traveling around the world experiencing new cultures and history while uncovering the secrets of the lost city of Atlantis.

Players begin by discovering a tablet in their attic with clues of a great mystery and travel to the country of Egypt. They move through five levels of gameplay by completing literacy games focusing on different foundational reading skills including: letter-sound fluency; word identification fluency; and phonological decoding fluency using onset-rime. To support Spanish-speaking multilingual learners, a read-aloud dictionary is available. The skills and content in each level are reinforced through games that mimic real world tasks, such as reading documents, labels, street signs, or lists of objects. Students find artifacts and relics to decode the ancient language of Atlantis into English.

According to Cuevas, “The game maintains interest over time because it includes an interactive and engaging story that is fun and includes activities that are grounded in learning science and evidence-based literacy instruction. They are able to improve their reading skills which provides a sense of accomplishment.”

Cuevas’ research is supported by the U.S. Department of Education. SMU continues to develop the Enigma game with financial support from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation and Barbara Bush Foundation. Dr. Diane Gifford and Dr. Corey Clark are Co-Investigators on the research project.

Middle School Math Gets a Boost from Virtual Reality  

Middle school math students struggling to catch up with their peers benefited significantly from tutoring via virtual reality according to new research by SMU math education pioneer Candace Walkington. The first researcher to develop and analyze VR tutoring, Walkington found the strategy offered students the benefits of face-to-face tutoring in addition to virtual immersion into the world of math.

Walkington, professor of teaching and learning at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development, presented her research recently at the American Educational Research Association meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

To conduct the study, Walkington and her team recruited 38 seventh- and eighth-graders from after-school programs at two Dallas urban schools. Ten miles away on the SMU campus, SMU undergraduate student tutors met their students remotely as avatars in a virtual math classroom where student avatars could stretch, condense, and even crawl inside the prisms, pyramids and other geometric shapes they were studying.

“VR is this very immersive environment where things happen that can’t happen in the real world,” Walkington says. “You can have a cube floating in the air in front of you and there’s no gravity to make it fall to the ground.”

Students are drawn to the playful aspects of VR tutoring, Walkington says, but research shows they also benefit from embodied learning, or the movement the technology enables that illustrates mathematical concepts, she says.

“When we move we do mathematics,” she says. “Students intuitively understand math in a spatial and embodied way. They will spontaneously use gestures and movements to explore concepts.”

It’s important to note that the study also exposed some limitations to VR tutoring. Despite upgrades to school Internet connections, students and remote tutors regularly experienced connection problems while working in the virtual world.  It also took time for students to learn to use the VR headset and goggles, creating delays.

According to a recent study conducted by Harvard and Stanford, students in the U.S. have made up about a third of COVID math learning loss, but the $122 million federal aid education package to support tutoring and summer school for those with COVID learning loss expires in September 2024.

“As technology continues to advance, we believe VR tutoring will become commonplace, given its strengths of embodied learning, dynamic interaction and collaboration,” she says.

Walkington’s research was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Co-authors of her paper include Max Sherard, Prajakt Pande, LeaAnne Daughrity and Anthony Cuevas.




Lipsmeyer named Simmons’ Liaison to Texoma Semiconductor Tech Hub

Dean Stephanie Knight has named Dr. Lin Lipsmeyer, Department Chair of SMU Simmons Teaching and Learning Department, as Simmons’ Liaison in the Texoma Semiconductor Tech Hub (TSTH) announced by President Joe Biden in October.  SMU was the only site in Texas selected and will serve as the lead agency in the economic development initiative to strengthen, build and drive innovation in the existing semiconductor supply chain in North Texas and Oklahoma.

Dr. Lipsmeyer says she has always been interested in interdisciplinary and collaborative work built on partnerships and is honored and excited about her appointment and the work ahead. “The TSTH provides such partnership opportunities to strengthen future learning and workforce. Serving as the liaison between Simmons and the TSTH consortium, I hope to use my research, interest, and experience to help Simmons, SMU, and the Tech Hub members to build innovative workforce pathways and open up learning and workforce opportunities for all.”

The consortium has started planning its Phase 2 proposals and will have its first workshop for the TSTH members on December 13 to build the model to promote enhanced collaboration, expand the region’s technical workforce and catalyze the commercialization of technological advancements through the development of three main areas.

Simmons School of Education and Human Development hopes to be involved in the overall vision and involved especially in the area of Workforce Development to promote opportunities at multiple skill levels for students and adult learners to enter the workforce, acquire new knowledge and obtain advanced degrees and certifications while minimizing the time it takes to do so. Outreach education will begin at the K-12 level while adult learners can also find a pathway to advance their careers in the semiconductor industry.

Dr. Tony Cuevas- Simmons Assistant Dean for Technology and Innovation, Dr. Richard Duschl -Caruth Institute and T&L affiliate faculty, and Dr. Corey Brady- Director of the Technology Enhanced Immersive Learning (TEIL) Cluster will also represent Simmons at the December 13 Tech Hub meeting.  Dean Knight says, “I am confident these outstanding educators led by Dr. Lin Lipsmeyer will contribute their extensive expertise in research, technology, and teaching to  benefit the important work of the Tech Hub. This is an incredible opportunity for SMU and Simmons as part of the consortium to have a major impact on our country and the world.” For details of the Texoma Semiconductor Tech Hub visit https://www.smu.edu/News/Research/SMU-to-lead-Texoma-Tech-Hub-to-unify-semiconductor-supply-chain

Article co-authored by Simmons Researcher honored with Editor’s Choice in The Journal of Educational Psychology

Dr. Stephanie Al Otaiba, the Patsy and Ray Caldwell Centennial Chair in Simmons Teaching and Learning, has co-authored an article published in The Journal of Educational Psychology that was selected as the Editor’s Choice. According to the Journal, the article titled: The relations of kindergarten early literacy skill trajectories on common progress monitoring measures to subsequent word reading skills for students at risk for reading difficulties, was chosen for this honor  for “reflecting science that is incredibly important, impactful, and deserves additional visibility for the whole field.”

The study, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology (Clemens et al., 2023), addressed the need for reliable and efficient assessment data to inform early and preventative literacy interventions for students at risk of developing reading disabilities. Researchers asked two primary questions: Does growth on certain brief curriculum-based measures predict word reading skills at the end of kindergarten and first grade and which measures are better at predicting which students would have weak word reading skill profiles at the end of first grade?

According to Al Otaiba, “We learned that in fall of kindergarten it was important to monitor letter sound fluency (LSF), or the number of sounds that students name correctly in a minute. During this instructional period, LSF growth was best able to predict students who later struggled to read. However, by spring of kindergarten, as instruction starts to focus on reading words and texts, it was important to monitor word reading fluency (WRF), or the number of words read correctly.”  WRF includes short words (2-6 letters); some that are decodable and some that are irregular. Al Otaiba says she and her collaborators hope educators will take away from the study the importance of identifying problems earlier. “Instead of waiting to identify students formally as having dyslexia or a reading disability, typically at grade 3, kindergarten is an important time when schools and teachers can use reliable data from brief curriculum-based measures (LSF and WRF) across the year to adjust instruction and provide more intensive support and resources to prevent word reading difficulties.”  She says schools can also use this growth data to confirm their literacy programs are helping most students develop reading skills. By contrast, data for those few students with limited growth despite good instruction (i.e., those who have not responded as well) could be part of a comprehensive evaluation to determine whether students need special education. In other words, the data can be used to ensure children don’t have to wait to fail before supporting their instructional needs.

The article stems from federally funded research in which Al Otaiba served as Co-Principal Investigator with Dr. Nathan Clemens, who was the Principal Investigator. This was a 1.6-million-dollar measurement grant from the Institute of Educational Sciences at U.S. Department of Education titled:(R324A130214) Investigating the Technical Adequacy of Progress Monitoring Measures for Kindergarten Students At-Risk for Reading Disabilities.

The purpose of this grant  was to learn more about early assessments of risk for reading difficulties. The grant period was 2013-2017 during which Al Otaiba says she and her SMU Simmons team collaborated closely with Dr. Clemens and his team, first at Texas A&M and later at the University of Texas at Austin. The teams continue to publish several articles and present findings from the study.

The article on the study findings published in the November 2023 issue of  the Journal of Educational Psychology  was co-authored by Al Otaiba, Clemens, Kejin Lee, Ziao Liu, Alexis Boucher, and Leslie Simmons and can be found at https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2024-12677-001.html?fbclid=IwAR31XYj2bbLRzLdrR5RGtoTiIPdXcMr_FcYuBEpbAUjY1UNxviUZmQiMZvY


Mathfinder Camp at the Dallas Zoo

Students from throughout the Dallas area enjoyed exploring the lives of animals through the lens of mathematics. Mathfinder Camp was free to participants thanks to generous funding provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Thanksgiving week camp was a joint effort between SMU Simmons, talkSTEM, and the Dallas Zoo.

More than 60 children aged 8-12 attended the educational camp where they got the chance to explore an exciting new math app currently in development. The Mathfinder app, a collaborative effort between SMU Simmons and talkSTEM, is designed to make math fun while sparking curiosity and creativity and instilling a lifelong love for learning in children. The mobile app uses Augmented Reality (AR) technology for use on iPads. Students used the app to watch videos that showed them how to see math in the animals and habitats at the zoo. The AR feature allowed them to insert holograms over their camera feed to see new things in the zoo surroundings.

SMU’s Candace Walkington, Ph.D.is grateful for the collaborative effort in working for the common goal of fostering a love for math and science among children. She also appreciates the data gathered to help further the success of the app. ”It was amazing to see the kids at the zoo using their ‘math lens’ to look at the zoo exhibits and generate their own observations and questions. The kids also loved sharing their mathematical discoveries with each other, their instructors, and even their parents at home.”

Koshi Dhingra, founder of talkSTEM, said, “We were thrilled to partner with SMU and the Dallas Zoo that allowed us to bring this unique educational opportunity to young minds in our community. We believe the camp showed children that math is not only essential but also a fascinating lens through which they can view all the places they go, including the zoo!”

Simmons Dean Stephanie Knight is extremely pleased with all aspects of the Mathfinder camp. “There is nothing better than when our Simmons research is taken into the community to directly serve youngsters by heightening their interest and understanding of math, reading and technology. The fact that it is a collaborative effort with talkSTEM, and the Dallas Zoo makes it even more exceptional. I applaud Dr. Walkington and her team for this excellent work and look forward to the impact the app will have when completed.”

The Mathfinder team plans to run additional camps in the Spring and Summer of 2024. The Girl Scouts of North Texas will participate in that camp at the Dallas Arboretum. The team’s current set of studies is looking at the impact that AR tools in the Mathfinder app have on learning. The long-term goal is to create an app that could be used anywhere to ask and answer mathematical questions about the world around you.

Simmons Reinforces Commitment to Cutting-Edge Technology Enhanced Immersive Learning

SMU has greatly strengthened its investment in Technology Enhanced Immersive Learning (TEIL) by adding three new professors to the existing group of TEIL researchers at the Simmons School of Education and Human Development. While Drs. Corey Brady, Prajakt Pande and Kelsey Schenck are all new faces at Simmons, they are already hard at work in their respective areas of research

Dr. Brady is an Associate Professor who specializes in Mathematics Education and the Learning Sciences. He studies mathematical and computational modeling to better understand and support the collective and embodied learning of classroom groups in innovative, immersive learning environments. He has been PI or co-PI on ten NSF projects totaling over $15 million, and he is a participant in the NSF AI Institute for Engaged Learning. He and collaborators received the Outstanding Paper Award at the International Conference of Learning Sciences in both 2020 and 2023.

Dr. Pande is an Assistant Professor who specializes in the convergence of embodied cognition, technology-enhanced learning, and STEM education. His research focuses on developing and evaluating innovative technology interfaces such as immersive virtual reality (iVR), to facilitate embodied learning of scientific concepts and phenomena. He examines cognition and action such as bodily interaction with scientific models and representations using qualitative interviewing, interaction analysis, and eye-tracking techniques.

Dr. Schenck  is an Assistant Professor whose research deals with embodied cognition, spatial reasoning, and STEM education. She is interested in using a grounded and embodied frame to understand the influence of the cognitive and affective aspects of spatial reasoning on students’ STEM learning and in the design of interventions with immersive technologies such as virtual and augmented reality. She also investigates the role of spatial ability and spatial anxiety in embodied mathematics, including geometry and proportional reasoning.



Texas Graduate Liberal Studies Symposium

What happens when two intellectual powerhouses like SMU Simmons and Rice University join forces? The  answer is the Texas Graduate Liberal Studies Symposium featuring outstanding papers authored by impressive professors and graduate students from SMU, Rice, TCU, UT Dallas and many more.

You might ask why it’s important to hold an annual Liberal Studies symposium in Texas. The answer is because the meaningful exchange of ideas through the written and spoken word can open minds and broaden horizons at a time when we, perhaps more than ever before, need more understanding and engagement in our world. The symposium provides an opportunity for students and alumni from Texas graduate liberal studies programs to share their experiences and studies and continue to explore timeless and timely human questions within the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

All are invited to hear and learn from the research papers and creative works that will be presented during the day-long conference. Titles such as  Understanding and Addressing America’s Wealth Gap, I Can Be Your Fairy, Baby: A Proposal for (Re)writing the Veteran’s Journey through Fairytale-style Narratives, Unconscious Prejudice, and Avoiding Social Invisibility: The Impact of Illustrations on Resources to Teach Human Rights to Indigenous Peoples are sure to prompt thought provoking discussions.

If you want to be part of the day-long symposium you need to register at https://bit.ly/3q1jz13 where you can also view the schedule, list of presenters and topics.




SMU Center on Research and Evaluation (CORE) at the Simmons School of Education & Human Development chosen to take part in study funded by the LEGO Foundation

DALLAS (SMU) – SMU Simmons’ Center on Research and Evaluation (CORE) will join Temple University in conducting a “Learning through Play” national study. The LEGO Foundation has awarded a $19.98 million grant to fund the longitudinal study. SMU’s Center on Research and Evaluation (CORE) at Simmons will be the Dallas site lead for the national study and will receive $2.8 million over 5 years to conduct the work locally.

In partnership with Dallas Independent School District, a one-year pilot study is being implemented with Pre-K through 1st graders. CORE Executive Director, Dr. Annie Wright will serve as the Principal Investigator, with CORE Assistant Director Dylan Farmer and Dr. Toni Harrison-Kelly, Executive Director at the SMU Budd Center, serving as Co-PIs. The researchers will study how creating active, engaged, socially interactive classrooms can bring about deeper learning and joyful teaching.

A pilot study will take place in the 2023-2024 academic year with the full study beginning in the 2024-2025 school year. According to Wright, SMU CORE will coordinate all research activities for the project and will consult the national team on school partnerships, parent engagement and community engagement. “We are honored to be selected to be part of this important work; we believe it will strengthen our research-practice partnerships with Dallas ISD.” The study will hire a local research coordinator as well as coaches to work with the national Active Playful Learning team.

Leon Simmons Endowed Dean Stephanie Knight says, “SMU CORE’s involvement in this study speaks to the caliber of work being done by Annie Wright and her staff. Their reputation in education research and evaluation is well-earned. I know they will add valuable data to this equation that could ultimately lead to a way to re-imagine education in and out of the classroom.”

Wright adds, “Partnership projects like APL do not emerge overnight. The collaborative work with Dallas ISD to implement APL coaching stems from other ongoing collaborations, including the West Dallas STEM School, CORE’s long-term partnership with Dallas ISD’s Early Learning Department to observe classrooms using the CLASS™ tool for coaching and observation, and the Consortium on Educational Research and Improvement (CERI) between SMU and Dallas ISD have all laid important groundwork.”

The project is led by Temple University Professor Kathy Hirsh-Pasek who is a New York Times Bestselling author on Early Childhood Education. Six other universities from around the country including University of California Irvine and University of Virginia, will join SMU Simmons in conducting the study. SMU Simmons is the #1 ranked private graduate school of education in the southwest and in the top 50 among public and private graduate schools of education in the 2023-2024 U.S. News & World Report rankings.


Dominique Baker is Honored with a National Award for Excellence in Education Research for Work that Pays it Forward

Dominique Baker, Associate Professor of Education Policy in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, has received the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) Early Career Award for 2023. The honor was presented at an awards ceremony at the AERA National conference in Chicago on April 15, 2023.

The award honors an individual in the early stages of their career no later than 10 years after receipt of the doctoral degree, for outstanding study in the field of educational inquiry.

Baker’s research focuses on the way that education policy affects and shapes the access and success of underrepresented minoritized students in higher education. She primarily investigates student financial aid, affirmative action, and policies that influence the ability to create an inclusive and equitable campus climate. She believes education policy can transform lives, but only if thoughtfully constructed based on evidence that includes the experiences of those directly impacted.

Baker says she is honored to receive the award. “Working within community to imagine a better world, and to find the evidence for the best pathways to improve our society is one of the privileges of my life.” She went on to say, “I will never have enough words to say how grateful I am so I will keep trying to show it by paying forward the support I’ve received.”

Simmons Dean, Stephanie Knight, says, “We are extremely proud of Dominique for her work that makes a meaningful difference in the lives of students and educators. This national award is very well-deserved.”

Baker joined SMU (Southern Methodist University) in 2016. Her research has been published in a variety of journals, including the American Educational Research Journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Journal of Higher Education, Journal of College Student Development, and Teachers College Record. Her work and expertise have also been highlighted by The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed, amongst others.

NSF Noyce Track 4 Grant Award to Jeanna Wieselmann Makes Examination of Integrated STEM Instruction Possible

Assistant Professor Jeanna Weiselmann, Ph.D., Department of Teaching and Learning

Assistant Professor Jeanna Wieselmann, Ph.D., heads up a collaborative research team investigating how elementary teachers integrate their instruction of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  The project, Research on Integrated STEM Self-Efficacy (RISE), will examine the STEM integration of 700 elementary teachers who experienced ten different teacher preparation programs across the U.S.

According to Wieselmann, quality integrated STEM instruction requires teachers to attend to the unique aspects of each discipline while also bringing them together in authentic learning opportunities for students, and this can be challenging. The aim is to support the national need to develop and retain highly effective elementary school teachers.

“Elementary teachers are often expected to teach integrated STEM, but teacher preparation programs have been slow to incorporate experiences that prepare teachers for this type of instruction, instead of focusing on mathematics and science as completely separate disciplines. ” she says. “Our project will explore how we can better support early-career elementary teachers to build their confidence and effectiveness in teaching integrated STEM lessons, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of instruction students experience.”

Wieselmann, a faculty member in Simmons’ Department of Teaching and Learning, is the principal investigator of the project’s National Science Foundation Noyce Track 4 research grant (DUE-2151045) totaling $1.3 million. Additional principal investigators include Deepika Menon, Ph.D. (University of Nebraska, Lincoln), Sarah Haines, Ph.D. (Towson University), and Sumreen Asim. Ph.D. (Indiana University Southeast).