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C Varenhorst

Prof. Michel DeGraff Receives NSF Grant

October 8, 2012

MIT Professor Michel DeGraff in collaboration with OEIT and others, has received an INSPIRE National Science Foundation grant to transform STEM higher education in Haiti by placing Kreyòl language center stage in Haitian-centric science learning.

The INSPIRE award is partially funded by the Cyberlearning: Transforming Education program in the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems (IIS) in Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), the Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering (REESE) program in the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Environments (DRL) in Education and Human Resources (EHR), and the Linguistics program in the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) in Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE).

This project addresses the issue of how to help those whose mother tongue is a language that does not include scientific and technological terminology to nonetheless learn STEM content and practices well. While research in linguistics and on how people learn suggests that learning in one's native language will promote deeper learning than learning in another language, no research has specifically been done around this question when the native language does not include scientific and technological terminology.

The focus of this project is on the creation and innovative uses of Open Education Resources (OER) for STEM learning at the post-secondary level with Haitian Creole (Kreyol) as the language of instruction. As part of their work, the PI and his team are creating a set of Haitian Creole-based, technology-enabled active-learning resources for STEM higher education in Haiti. Haitian public policy is to teach in French, a distinct disadvantage for the Kreyol-speaking public. In addition, there are few materials, and almost no on-line materials, available in Kreyol that can serve as resources. Interactive materials and resources created at MIT (STAR; Software Tools for Academics and Researchers) are being translated into Kreyol and embedded within the active-learning framework for learning science and engineering created by and used successfully in large classes at MIT (TEAL; Technology-Enabled Active Learning). Professional development materials for TEAL are being translated into Kreyol as part of the project, and Haitian teachers are learning to use an active-learning approach. A variety of fundamental research questions are being addressed, pertaining to (i) the effects, impacts, and challenges of creating opportunities to learn in one's mother tongue, especially when it does not already contain relevant vocabulary (ii) the creation and diffusion of scientific and technical vocabulary in languages without technical words, called "language engineering", (iii) technical and socio-technical issues in adapting and incorporating learning technologies into the learning environments of underserved populations.

The proposed project crosses goals of NSF programs in linguistics, education, and cyberlearning but does not fit directly into any existing NSF programs. With respect to linguistics, the project makes systematic use of Kreyol in the production of materials and includes substantial language engineering. As such, it is a translational linguistics project, putting knowledge about language structure to work in ways that may raise fundamental new questions for linguistics research. With respect to STEM education, the proposed project promotes large-scale adoptions of proven educational innovations, and its approach (systematic use of the language of discourse of a community) is quite different from other scale-up and dissemination projects. With respect to cyberlearning, the proposed work aims to study impacts of available educational software and other resources on learning and extend the reach of existing well-designed learning technologies. The infrastructure that will be set up may very well provide other researchers opportunities to learn more about personalizing learning for specialized populations. This project aims to bring together what is known across disciplines for positive societal change.

In Haiti and other parts of the "Global South," education is offered only in the language of previous colonial powers rather than in the native language of the population. Because the colonial language is not the mother tongue of either teachers or students, most of the population are at a huge disadvantage with respect to STEM learning. This, in turn, contributes to perpetuating the poverty and lack of economic development in these countries. Two hypotheses form the foundation for this project: (1) Better science, technology, engineering, and math education in under-developed countries will lead to better economic development. (2) Education in the language of the community will qualitatively and transformationally improve learning. The investigators are therefore bringing together what is known across the fields of linguistics, education, and learning technologies to develop effective educational materials in the mother tongue of Haitian students and to help teachers learn up-to-date active-learning methodologies for teaching STEM subjects. They are studying the effects of these materials and approaches and learning how to design and integrate such materials into the learning environment and broader cultural environment of the learners. The project is being carried out across a variety of post-secondary institutions. Potential broader and transformational impacts include improved economic development in countries in the "Global South" and perhaps a paradigm shift in thinking about the role of local languages in STEM education. Such a paradigm shift could lead to improved access to education for all, both in countries where the spoken language is not a language with scientific and technical vocabularies and in developed countries where some of the population (e.g., refugees and new immigrants) do not yet speak the language of the country well.

For more information, visit the NSF grant information page.

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