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Oklahoma State University

The Learning World of Tomorrow

A young child grabs the controls of what looks like a video game controller to interact intently with the 3-D solar system on the large screen before her. She is having fun playing in the high-definition virtual reality environment. And she’s a part of a quiet revolution involving the future of learning, and Oklahoma State University faculty members are at the forefront of it.

The child at play has autism, and this learning experience is part of a pilot initiative aimed at helping children with autism learn science.

Dr. J. Cecil, associate professor in the School of Industrial Engineering at OSU, heads up this research with engineering and education faculty and students. 

“We are in the preliminary stages of this exciting research,” says Cecil. “Our group is interested in exploring how advanced engineering technologies can be used to help children with special needs.”

An estimated one in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder in the U.S, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the number is growing. A 2012 report from the CDC noted a 23 percent increase since 2009 in autism diagnoses among 8-year-olds in the U.S., but noted that at least some of that increase is due to the way children are identified, diagnosed and served in their communities today.

Symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder, including a lack of social interaction, delayed communication and limited activities and interests, usually appear by the time a child is 3 years old.

“Collectively, we are not only creating virtual learning environments but also studying impact of these VLEs on learning and engagement,” says Cecil. “We live in a cyber-intensive world, and children are comfortable using video games and iPads. In a VLE, a child can explore and satisfy their natural curiosity. Unlike a traditional classroom, they can repeat an interactive experience or go back and inquire more about a certain part of their learning module.”

With funding from the Office of the Provost at OSU, the research team is collaborating with Dr. Mary Sweet-Darter of the University of Central Oklahoma. As a member of the Oklahoma Autism Task Force, Sweet-Darter has been instrumental in creating a network of services for families with children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.  

Damon Chandler, associate professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Mwarumba Mwavita of OSU’s College of Education have been working closely with Cecil on this groundbreaking research.

“A graphics-intensive virtual communication medium has the potential to engage and encourage children to learn through exploration,” says Chandler. “Once a child is immersed in a virtual reality environment, very few of them want to leave it and do something else.”

VLE-based techniques have been used successfully for the general population at both the K-12 level and at the undergraduate and graduate levels in engineering courses, Cecil says. In fact, OSU’s College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology is pioneering an innovative approach where students can learn by immersing themselves in 3-D learning environments.

“We chose to study this area of research because we wanted our engineering research to have a more direct impact on helping children learn,” says Cecil. “The long-term outcome will hopefully be to enable those with autism to function at high levels independently.”

“In this pilot project, we will design virtual environments for autistic children and study its impact on their learning of basic science and math concepts,” says Cecil. “We will be working with around 20 children under the age of 10, one-on-one for a few years to generate the data we need to establish results.”

Although the study is still in early stages, this OSU research group hopes its findings can be used in developing school curriculum and community opportunities that stimulate children with these needs.

Cecil says his research group is continuing to look for additional partners. His group plans to create an Oklahoma Educational Initiative with more emphasis on helping those with autism learn science and math.  

“This research is just the beginning in helping shed light on this area,” says Cecil. “Our group is interdisciplinary in its outlook and this enables us to provide a unique perspective on both technology and learning.”

Chandler indicates that the group’s findings will not only affect children with autism, but they could also help identify new ways to encourage science and engineering learning in K-12 and higher education. 

Cecil says designing new educational technologies is vital to keeping all children interested in science and engineering, as well as opening doors to students who might otherwise not consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

The research takes place through the Center for Information Centric Engineering. For more information on research at CICE, visit