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Last modified: Monday, June 22, 2009

IU School of Education professor selected for prestigious Spencer Fellowship

Melissa Gresalfi's postdoctoral fellowship will fund research into engaging students in math

June 22, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The National Academy of Education has selected an Indiana University School of Education assistant professor as a 2009-2010 Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow.

Melissa Gresalfi

Melissa Gresalfi

Print-Quality Photo

Melissa Gresalfi, a counseling and educational psychology assistant professor, is among the 20 researchers selected from a pool of more than 150 applicants. The National Academy of Education's Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship Program supports early career scholars working in critical areas of education research. Researchers are selected within five years of earning a Ph.D.

"We're very proud of Melissa's award," said IU School of Education Dean Gerardo Gonzalez. "The Spencer Fellowships are some of the most prestigious awards for young researchers in education. Her work on applications of video game technology to develop mathematical knowledge among young people has great potential for improving math education in this country and internationally."

This nonresidential postdoctoral fellowship funds proposals that make significant scholarly contributions to the field of education. The program also develops the careers of its recipients through professional development activities involving National Academy of Education members. Gresalfi said she is excited about the fellowship, particularly because she understands from working with a group of past fellows that it's not simply an award to fund research.

"It's sort of an intentional opportunity to create a really collaborative group of people who are somewhat familiar with each other's work, even if they are drawing from different fields," Gresalfi said. "With this group of people, it was very clear that they became a set of resources for one another that extended beyond the year or two years they had the fellowship."

Gresalfi added that the Spencer Foundation -- which funds the fellowships through a grant to the National Academy of Education -- tends to sponsor cutting edge research that may have a difficult time finding federal funding. The fellowship will support her project, "Designing for Consequential Engagement: The Role of 'Push Back' on Student Thinking," examining how students can become better engaged in learning math through video games. Gresalfi expects students will better master the subject because they will be making decisions that have consequences in the game.

"One hypothesis about why students are so disengaged from mathematics in general is that they are actually asked to make very few choices and mostly just follow a lot of directions," Gresalfi said. But she said that just "making math interesting" is not the solution. "It turns out that doesn't really change much about learning math," she said.

Her study will test her theory that engaging students through making choices with consequences is more effective at teaching math. "That requires more than just putting a fancy story on things," Gresalfi said. "It actually requires creating opportunities for kids to problem-solve and make decisions and make mistakes. So you don't have to create stories or even video games to get kids to really love math, but you do have to create dilemmas."

Gresalfi's study will compare two project-based curricula, with a dilemma arising in each narrative. One of the games used as a tool will have consequences for the choices the students make, while the other will not. Feedback from the game with consequences will let the student know how his or her choice using math worked -- or didn't.

"So that 'pushback' is about 'Did I make the right choice,' or 'Why was my choice more or less effective, and not 'did I do the thing the teacher wanted me to do?'"

Gresalfi has extensive experience researching virtual world or educational gaming tools. She works with "Quest Atlantis" through the Center for Research on Learning and Technology, a research center of the IU School of Education. Quest Atlantis, created by School of Education Jacobs Chair in Learning Science and Instructional System Technology Sasha Barab, is a learning and teaching tool for students between ages 9-12 that uses a 3-D, multiuser environment to immerse children in educational tasks.

Gresalfi will develop the learning tools through Quest Atlantis over the next two years. At the conclusion of her research, she expects to find students more willing to take on math study through this challenging environment.

"What I have found is that when kids come in to do a video game, it doesn't feel like school anymore," she said. "So they are willing to take risks, and they are willing to wonder and they are willing to explore -- because that's what you do in video games."