A Finnish-American research collaboration sparkles with learning innovations


Science Across Virtual Institutes (SAVI) is a Finnish-American research collaboration on the development of innovations in STEM learning and education. Professors Eric Hamilton from Pepperdine University California and Jari Multisilta from the University of Helsinki give insight on how research results from the project could be used in engaging students in science, technology and mathematics.

In early 2013 a collaboration between Finnish and American education researchers took a step forward as Science Across Virtual Institutes was formally launched. Called SAVI for short, Science Across Virtual Institutes brings together sixteen research groups. Each of the eight groups from Finland partners with a group from the US forming eight teams.

“In SAVI education experts from Finland and the USA work together with the aim of improving student engagement in STEM,” summarizes professor Jari Multisilta, who heads the Finnish side of the collaboration. The SAVI program is funded by both Finnish and American sources: the Academy of Finland, Tekes (the Finnish Agency for Technology and Innovation) and the US National Science Foundation. Multisilta believes that motivation for both researchers and supporters stems from a general concern: “Policy makers are becoming more and more aware of the challenges linked to the low popularity of STEM subjects. In the future we will need an increasing number of skilled STEM experts to maintain and develop our societies and economies sustainably.”

The SAVI research teams specialize in different topics of learning innovations in science and mathematics:

  • WEPS Advancing an Online Project in the Assessment and Effective Teaching of Calculus
  • eTEXTBOOK Dynamic Digital Text: An Innovation in STEM Education Finland
  • EAGER Engagement in STEM learning and careers through the use of innovative learning activities
  • VIP Video Inquitry Project. STEM Learning and Teaching with Mobile Video Inquiries and Communities
  • FUN: Finland – US Network for the Study of Engagement and Learning in Games
  • GROMINDS Graphogame and MindStars Books: Global Cyber Tools for Improving Young Learner’s Reading Comprehension, Scientific Discourse and STEM Learning
  • PDE Studying & Supporting Productive Disciplinary Engagement In Demanding Stem Learning Environments Across Cultures And Settings
  • UNCODE – Uncovering Hidden Cognitive Demands on Global Learners

From research highlights to the learners’ daily lives

After launching in January 2013 the projects included in the SAVI program have been conducting research and designing new approaches and solutions to educational challenges. “Many of the teams are currently analyzing results and developing information into innovative concepts together with partner schools and teachers,” says Multisilta, who is at the moment working as a visiting scholar in Stanford University.

Research is ongoing, echoes professor Eric Hamilton from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, who orchestrates the US side of the program: “Firm research findings based on data collection awaits analysis, though all of the projects have collected sizable bodies of data in the past several months.”

From Hamilton’s perspective significant advances have been made: “Important results include the development of new software systems that reflect the collaboration, including an important tool jointly developed at the University of Helsinki, Michigan State University and Google Analytics, for example, usable on mobile devices to assess the engagement of learners in science education.”

“One of the collaborations has already produced a draft volume on the timely area of MOOCs and the use of large bodies of data to make highly calibrated designs of learning environments.”

Both Multisilta and Hamilton highlight successful results on how games and gaming could improve engagement in STEM subjects.

“New software has been developed between literacy researchers and game developers at Jyväskylä and Boulder Learning Technologies,” says Hamilton.

Multisilta is also interested in encouraging collaboration between researchers, teachers and the business sector. He would like to see their research results develop into tangible concepts and tools that would be useful for teachers in their daily work. “The solutions will not be limited to STEM subjects but can potentially benefit all teachers.”

Hamilton is confident that SAVI will be highly consequential in each country. Some software is already being tested in partner schools in both Finland and the US.

For example tools used in the VIP project support learning and thinking processes through student-generated videos on observable scientific phenomena.

The software is called MoViE, Mobile Video Experience. According to Multisilta each video functions as a prompt to inquiry: “What is going on?” The videos are posted on a common interface where fellow students comment and discuss the topic. These narrative annotations facilitate independent learning where the teacher’s role is to direct and support the students in their inquiry process. “About 80 % of youth and children watch internet videos daily. The videos created with MoViE could cross borders between school work and after school entertainment,” says Multisilta.

The VIP team is entering a new exciting phase in their research. In spring 2014 partner school groups in Finland and the US will begin a new experimental phase: international collaboration. Until now the schools have been testing the use of software and the concept just for themselves. Soon, however, students will have the opportunity to test the MoViE interface together with fellow students in another country. It will be interesting to see how the students will start exploring STEM concepts together.

Science Across the Atlantic –and further

Both Multisilta and Hamilton think that the SAVI program has started successfully. Geographical distances are no hindrance today and regular virtual meetings keep the teams updated on each other’s progress. Video and Skype conferences can be complemented with face-to-face meetings and researcher visits between the countries.

“Collaborations of this type require time to form and to mature. Yes, we have had many first year successes. The overall success of the collaboration will depend on the degree to which its members are able to test and implement scalable approaches to learning environment designs that routinely draw – and keep – youngsters in complex and challenging STEM learning,” says Hamilton.

Multisilta looks beyond just the two countries involved in the SAVI program: “Challenges in learning are global but can differ in many areas of the world. For the future I hope that we could find ways to expand our research results and innovations to a global scale.”

Hamilton on the other hand visions SAVI a role in advancing a new school system: “a school that does not require the student to conform to structures that filter or classify them into the better and the weaker. Rather, that school that conforms more to the learner, that has tools and approaches that appeal in highly individualized ways to all of our students, and draws them into STEM-rich experiences that are sufficiently engaging that their routine, day-to-day experience.”

Text: Maija Pollari.
Photo: Janne Salo