FIRE: Applying Embodied Learning to Physics Education

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This FIRE proposal brings cognitive scientists together with physicists. The goal is to improve high school and college students’ physics proficiency through specific types of lab experiences that allow the student to become part of the physical system being studied. Lab experiences where students have direct experience with physics quantities (e.g., feeling forces – as opposed to reading about force, seeing forces being exerted on someone else, or even measuring forces with instruments) may lead to the recruitment of brain areas devoted to sensory and motor (sensorimotor) processing when students later think and reason about the physics concepts they experienced. Recent research shows that when these sensorimotor areas are involved in thinking and reasoning tasks, people’s understanding of the concepts in question improves (Beilock et al., 2008).


The research institutions involved in this work are the University of Chicago and DePaul University.

Research Design: 

The project uses a comparative research design and will generate evidence that is descriptive [design research] and causal [experimental]. This project collects original data on high-school and college physics students using assessments of learning and imaging. We employ behavioral performance measures (e.g., test questions) and fMRI to uncover the cognitive and neural mechanisms by which certain lab experiences work.

Students in the intervention group will be provided with sensorimotor experience designed to enhance their understanding of particular physics concepts. The comparison condition is observation or measurement of the same phenomena without direct sensorimotor experience. We will use a General Linear Model to explore the impact of our interventions on learning. We will also employ mediation techniques to assess whether sensorimotor experience enhances learning through recruitment of specific neural regions known to support perception and action.


Pilot work demonstrates the benefits of sensorimotor experience for students’ understanding of the angular momentum concept. Students completed a test measuring their understanding of physical systems both before and after a training exercise. During training, students observed a demonstration of angular momentum and torque (observation group) or became part of the physical system and felt the effects of a changing angular momentum themselves (sensorimotor group). The sensorimotor group improved their understanding of the relations between factors which influence angular momentum and torque. The observation group did not. Importantly, visual input and attentional demands were equated across students, suggesting that sensorimotor experience drove learning differences.

Other Products: 

The findings from this work will advance physics education and also have the potential to impact learning in other STEM domains.