ASU professor recognized as ‘Teaching Innovator’ by Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education has named Ariel Anbar, a President’s Professor in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and School of Molecular Sciences, to its first-ever list of “Teaching Innovators.”

Only 10 faculty nationwide were selected for this honor by The Chronicle, which sought nominations from its readers via social media, from college teaching advocates and from higher-education leaders. The final selections were made by a group of Chronicle editors and reporters.

The Chronicle calls these innovators “faculty members who are using fresh approaches in their classrooms to help their students succeed.”

Anbar’s learning philosophy and teaching approach, which earned him this award, is to view science education as not just mastery of what is known, but also as exploration of the unknown. He leads a team that pioneers the use of new digital technologies to put exploration at the center of the learning experience in large enrollment classes. 

Using this approach — called “education through exploration” or “ETX” — students are motivated by a challenge or a question and are guided by an intelligent tutoring system to explore possibilities and discover answers.

“Through curiosity, students are inspired,” Anbar said. “They become explorers who think rationally and systemically, pushing beyond preconceived notions.”

“College represents an extraordinary opportunity for exploration and insight, fueled by curiosity and the enthusiasm and creativity of talented professors,” ASU President Michael Crow said. “Dr. Anbar’s work not only may inspire students to expand their reach in his class and through his new 'education through exploration' learning platforms, but also increase their capacity to tackle complex topics, ask critical questions, solve problems and, ultimately, pursue lifelong learning.”

Anbar directs ASU’s Center for Education Through Exploration (ETX Center), which develops digital learning experiences such as immersive virtual field trips, as well as online courses and digitally empowered teaching networks that enable educators to create and share next-generation courseware and technology. The center’s staff includes more than 15 technologists, learning designers, developers, education researchers and project managers. The center works closely with skilled staff at Smart Sparrow, a company that makes a unique adaptive, interactive technology platform.

While this new digital approach to “active learning” is still being introduced to the world, it is already in practice at ASU. Habitable Worlds, an online course that Anbar developed with ETX Center learning designer Lev Horodyskyj — supported by ASU Online, NASA and the National Science Foundation — has been taken by more than 5,000 ASU students since it began in 2011. This freshman-level course for non-majors uses interactive simulations and virtual field trips to introduce astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics to non-science majors as they explore the search for life beyond Earth. It embodies the transition away from lecture-based learning and “skill-and-drill” exercises to experiences that inspire curiosity, exploration and discovery.

Drawing on the successes of Habitable Worlds, Anbar and ETX Center talent helped the team at Smart Sparrow develop BioBeyond as part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Courseware Challenge, to bring this approach to the introductory biology curriculum at ASU as well as to more than 50 other colleges and universities as part of the Inspark Science Teaching Network. Through Inspark, about 18,000 students have experienced ETX learning by taking one of these courses.

Habitable Worlds and BioBeyond both make use of interactive virtual field trips (iVFTs), pioneered by ETX Center technologist Geoffrey Bruce. iVFTs allow students to explore scientifically important locations around the world using high-resolution and 3-D imagery. Since 2009, and most recently as part of a project supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Anbar and Bruce have been developing a suite of iVFTs that teach about the interplay of life and environment through geologic time.

In addition to providing a new approach for students to learn about science, the technologies that underpin ETX experiences also offer new ways for educators to tailor lessons to individual learners even when they have a lot of students learning and studying remotely.

“In a small classroom setting, educators can more easily tailor a lesson plan to individual students,” said Diana Hunsley, project manager in the ETX Center. “But in classes with hundreds of students or in online settings, this is more difficult to do. The advantage of the ETX approach, using a digital platform, is that it provides adaptive feedback that personalizes learning on a large scale.” 

Educators using platforms like Smart Sparrow can examine the mistakes their students make, where they get confused and what they struggle with. Then, learning designers can craft experiences that anticipate those challenges, adapting each student’s route through the material in the best direction to help them through their challenges. Like a video game, the experience can be different for each student, offering individualized pathways and support.

Most recently, the ETX approach caught the attention of NASA, which is funding Anbar and his team to bring personalized learning to Earth and space science topics, aimed at high school and middle school, through the Infiniscope project. This project uses game-design principles, an engaging narrative and interactive feedback to provide formal and informal educators with high-quality STEM resources for their students.

“Mastering science,” Anbar said, “is not the same as mastering facts. It requires that you develop problem-solving skills based on logic and reason, inspired by curiosity. Ask a question, design a hypothesis, test it and learn from it. The typical researcher only masters enough content to ask a useful question. Beyond that, science is exploration. That’s how we ought to teach.”

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Karin Valentine
School of Earth and Space Exploration
karinv@asu.edu