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.




Simmons Researchers Author Book on Cutting Edge Teaching Approach to STEM

A new book that focuses on integrated project-based instruction in STEM should  help teachers make Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum more understandable for their students. That is the hope of the authors, Simmons Associate Dean Anthony Petrosino, Ph.D., Annette and Harold Simmons Centennial Chair Candace Walkington, Ph.D., and their colleague Denise Ekberg.

The new book, Frameworks for Integrated Project-Based Instruction in STEM Disciplines, takes a deep dive into a teaching method that has grown in popularity. According to Petrosino, “Project-based instruction has probably never been as popular as it is today. But with that popularity comes many different interpretations of what is meant by this type of instruction. We hope this book will help interested teachers, administrators, and researchers navigate the challenges and enjoy the benefits of project-based instruction.”

The book features deep coverage of multiple topics in PBI including supportive structures to make PBI easier to implement, student-driven inquiry, driving questions, and development of lessons based on national and state standards. There are also chapters dedicated to the history of PBI, implementation of PBI at scale, and future directions of PBI.

Walkington says project-based instruction is  an important way to make STEM learning relevant to students. “Kids ask the question, ‘When am I ever going to use this?’ It was important to write this book to give teachers more tools to bring this relevance into their classrooms. When kids confront real-world problems that  matter in their lives and communities, motivation and deeper learning can be fostered.”

The book brings together more than 25 years of applied research and instruction with preservice and in-service teachers from across the country. The authors also relied on the work they and their colleagues conducted in the STEM disciplines and the learning sciences. They say they are confident readers of the book will know it was written by people who have “walked the walk” when it comes to project-based instruction.

The hope is that the book will help give more STEM teachers, especially math teachers, the tools they need to try PBI in their classrooms. And while teachers might at first find the approach a bit intimidating to implement, the authors know from experience that it can be incredibly rewarding for students and teachers. For more visit https://bit.ly/IPBinSTEMDisciplines


Dr. Corey Brady to Speak at International Conference

Dr. Corey Brady, Simmons Assistant Professor and one of the newest members of SMU’s Technology Enhanced Immersive Learning (TEIL) research cluster, will speak at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)’s Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology, in their speaker series, Experiences from the Classroom of the Future.

Dr. Brady, who is fluent in Spanish, will deliver his talk, A vision of STEAM: Constructing powerful ideas through participatory activities, in Spanish.

The UNAM is the largest public university in Latin America, and a center for STEM and STEM Education research.  The prestigious invitation to speak at the Experiences in the Classroom of the Future 2023 seminar came from the Continuing Education Network of the UNAM and the Network of Classrooms of the Future.

Brady will present in a live webinar on August 25 at 11 a.m. CST which will be transmitted on the Aula del Futura channel on YouTube.

Toyota, SMU Simmons, and Dallas ISD partnership named a finalist in D CEO’s Nonprofit and Corporate Citizenship Awards for 2023

Toyota Motor North America (TMNA) and partners SMU Simmons and Dallas Independent School District are nominated in the Corporate Citizenship Category for  developing a Pre-K – 8th grade  West Dallas STEM School in the 75212 zip code.

As part of the partnership, Simmons has designed a STEM curriculum, offers professional development for faculty, coordination of community-based services, and comprehensive research and evaluation.

Toyota USA Foundation and TMNA provide ongoing contributions of volunteer time and industry partner collaboration on project components including sizeable grants to the Simmons school in support of the project. Dallas ISD supplies operational needs including the building, renovations and staffing at the school which is located in the former Pinkston High School.

The ultimate goal of the partnership is that West Dallas STEM School will prepare students for college and the workforce while establishing a model that can be replicated in other schools and communities both locally and around the country.

Simmons Dean Stephanie Knight responded to the nomination. “We are honored to be nominated for this recognition along with our incredible partners, Toyota Motor North America, and Dallas ISD. We are humbled to be one of the five nominees in the Collaboration of the Year category and hope we can be an example of what is possible when community organizations work together for positive change.”

The full story and complete list of categories and nominees are found at https://tinyurl.com/2vcktpda

The winners in each category will be announced in July. The D CEO’s sixth annual Nonprofit and Corporate Citizenship Awards are presented in partnership with Communities Foundation of Texas and sponsored by Capital One.

Volunteers to plant 30 fruit trees Monday at West Dallas Stem School, Launching Learning Garden

DALLAS (SMU) – Volunteers will plant a fruit tree orchard between 9 a.m. and noon Monday, Dec. 12 at Dallas ISD’s West Dallas STEM School — the first step of the school’s planned learning garden.

When the trees mature in three years, students will harvest as many apples, pears, peaches, figs and paw paws as they can eat. Other produce will be distributed through the campus general store, or shared with West Dallas nonprofit, Brother Bill’s Helping Hand.

School volunteers and partners from SMU, Toyota USA Foundation and the West Dallas community will prepare the site for each tree, then plant and stake them. Grow North Texas, the Dallas affiliate of the Giving Grove, a national nonprofit serving communities experiencing food insecurity, is providing the trees and will oversee the planting process. To ensure a healthy and productive orchard, Grow North Texas has trained two tree stewards from Brother Bill’s Helping Hand to oversee continuing care.

The West Dallas STEM School orchard is the 11th Dallas-area orchard planted by GROW North Texas’ Giving Grove program this fall, with more scheduled by the end of February. A grant from Domino’s Pizza is funding the project through One Tree Planted, a global reforestation organization.

The mature orchard is expected to produce more than 20,000 servings of healthy fruit each year, with a typical tree lifespan of 20-30 years or more. The orchard will preserve urban greenspace, increase tree canopy and offer important environmental benefits, including carbon sequestration, improved soil biology and stormwater absorption.

In addition, the orchard will be an outdoor laboratory that will strengthen the unique project-based STEM curriculum at the West Dallas STEM School, opened in 2021 as a collaboration between Dallas ISD, SMU, the Toyota USA Foundation and the West Dallas community.


What: An urban orchard of 30 fruit trees will be planted at Dallas ISD’s West Dallas STEM School

When: 9 a.m. remarks and groundbreaking. Planting to follow.

Where: West Dallas STEM School, 2200 Dennison St., Dallas. Orchard entrance off Hampton Road, south of Texas Quality Remodeling

APSM Student Reflects on STEM Pilot Project for Youth Sports

This summer, I had the opportunity to be an intern for Clinical Assistant Professor Sarah Brown in her West Dallas pilot program, Pony Connect. Pony Connect is a research initiative that involves using STEM concepts in youth sports. The aim is to engage SMU students with the community. It was a mutually beneficial program because as much as the students are looked up to I have always wanted to get involved with the Dallas community and Pony Connect was the perfect opportunity for me. I was also learning so much from them. They taught me the importance of friendship, trust, and how the smallest details can make the biggest difference. It was incredible to form relationships with these students and watch their personalities shine. I loved seeing their excitement when different activities and projects were introduced.

We would give the students a test before the lesson was taught and then give them the exact same test at the end of the unit. Watching the students’ academic success improve was so rewarding. The fact that we were able to incorporate math or engineering lessons into fun activities and sports drills, showed them that learning can be fun and enjoyable. Overall, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity and so proud of the work Dr. Brown has accomplished. I am excited to watch the program grow!

Essay by Elizabeth  Klevana, Sport Performance Leadership major


Pictured below (left) is Iyasu Shaka, who writes his acceptance speech for winning the top prize at the camp, and  Isaac Shaka (right), who presents a basketball shoe he made from cardboard, bubble wrap, and foam.


Associate Prof. Walkington and Ph.D. Student Pruitt-Britton Write Ed Week Commentary Debunking Alleged Indoctrination in Math Textbooks

Simmons Associate Professor Candace Walkington teaches a class in Harold Clark Simmons Hall on the SMU Campus.

Education Week published a commentary by Candace Walkington, Simmons associate professor of mathematics education and learning sciences, and co-author, Ph.D. student, Tiffini Pruitt-Britton, who show that math textbooks are not about indoctrination, but fall short in promoting diversity and inclusion.

Their commentary comes at a time when political accusations inflame education discussions at the local and national levels. Some politicians are declaring what books schools should carry and what subjects should not be taught, such as critical race theory.

“We found no references to race or social justice let alone critical race theory, a framework for understanding how racism has been persistently embedded in policy. But our analysis did show a lack of substantial attention to differences linked to race, culture, gender norms, and sexual orientation in math-story content, they say. Read their commentary here.

Tiffini Pruitt-Britton, Simmons Ph.D. student, and co-author of Education Week commentary.

Toyota’s President Reflects on the Importance of STEM and Working with Partners in Education

In an op-ed for The Dallas Morning News, Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corporation, expresses his concern over training the workforce to meet the challenges and demands of the 21st century. His article stresses the importance education has in ushering change. Toyoda also delineated the partnership his company has in North Texas with Dallas ISD, SMU Simmons and the community of West Dallas to create a significant PreK to 8 STEM school near L.G. Pinkston, the neighborhood high school.

With successful partnerships and the creation of a STEM school, Toyota decided to replicate the STEM school model in 14 other U.S. cities and work with communities to bring in educational change.  As Toyoda writes, “Toyota’s U.S.-Japan partnership has flourished thanks to the shared values and mutual respect forged by the people of both countries at all levels. At its heart lies education and developing people. And as a company that calls both America and Japan home, Toyota will continue working to support students and all citizens of these great countries to help ensure we can, and will, provide mobility and happiness for all.”    Click here to read his article.