Ph.D. in Education, 2015
School of Education
August 1, 2012
Research Applies Theories from Motivation and Cognition to the Design of Learning Environments
Cathy Tran is a Ph.D. student in the Learning, Cognition, and Development (LCD) specialization. Her research applies theories from motivation and cognition to the design of learning environments. She is particularly interested in the mechanisms of how motivation and cognitive processes influence each other, especially for interest-driven environments such as museums and games.
“In games, kids are constantly failing, exploring, and tinkering, and that’s what makes games fun. So, how can we get them to also persist and code challenge as a positive attribute while learning science and math?”
The answer to this question, she believes, lies at the intersection of researchers, teachers, children, producers, and designers working together.
Funded by UCI’s Multidisciplinary Design Program, Cathy is leading a team of faculty and students from half a dozen departments to create a “gross-yet-cute” iPad game about how the digestive system works, complete with the kid-favorite poop stage. The team is designing mini games for each of the organs and conducting play testing with children to learn about what they enjoy, what they know about where food travels, and their misconceptions about cause and effect in that process. That project is inspired by Dr. Tina Grotzer’s research on children’s understanding of consequences.
What I love is research that informs both theory and practice, and to be part of a cycle in which research and product development inform each other.
In a forthcoming book chapter with Dr. Mark Warschauer and her advisor Dr. AnneMarie Conley, Cathy shares ideas about how motivation theories can be applied to the design of educational technology. At the Games+Learning+Society conference this past June, she presented a talk on that subject with the chapter authors along with Dr. Jason Chen and Dr. Chris Dede of Harvard University, where she received her Master’s in Technology, Innovation, and Education.
In another project, Cathy is using longitudinal data from the California Motivation Project to analyze how changes in academic achievement, expectancy for success, and value for mathematics predict middle school students’ engagement and disengagement in math. She will be presenting these findings at the International Conference on Motivation in Germany this month.
From elementary to high school, students’ interest, enjoyment, and perception of competence in math spirals downwards, and I want to better understand this process in order to provide insight about how to counter it.
Cathy’s interest in STEM education started in college when she taught as a coordinator of a chemistry outreach program for fifth graders and a teaching fellow for life sciences at a junior high. After majoring in biopsychology and minoring in writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara, she wrote for the journal Science, Scholastic’s Science World, and The Orange County Register.
Part of what drew me into science journalism was wanting to bridge scientists and the public so that people understand and are excited about the discoveries being made. Plus, it was pretty cool to have an excuse to call up Nobel Laureates and other fancy people.
Now, Cathy wants to connect academic researchers and product developers and, having been on both sides, is in a unique position to do so. Prior to attending UC Irvine, she was a consultant on the evaluations of the TV series Sid the Science Kid and several science museum exhibits. More recently, she was a producer at Scholastic, Inc., where she led the design and implementation of formative evaluations of math products. In this role, she piloted classroom curriculum, conducted user testing with games in development, and moderated focus groups with teachers, principals, and superintendents.
The National Science Foundation has supported what they called Cathy’s “unusual interdisciplinary adventurousness” and recently awarded her the Nordic Opportunity grant supplement for her Graduate Research Fellowship in educational psychology. This fall, Cathy will be a visiting researcher at the InterMedia Lab at the University of Oslo in Norway, where she will explore how digital media can bridge informal and formal learning environments. The project is a collaborative effort among the university research team, schools, and a science museum to use digital representations to support children’s motivation for learning and conceptual understanding about alternative energy.
At times, I’ve wondered if trying to orchestrate all sorts of collaborations and conduct interdisciplinary research is a little too crazy, but I am lucky to have been able to work with people who have provided encouragement, inspiration, and such wonderful intellectual and financial support for my ideas.