Roddenberry Foundation gift allows Yale team to take quantum leap in education

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Can we help young children learn better? Dr. Bruce Wexler, professor emeritus of and senior research scientist in psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, believes that the answer is “yes.”

Wexler and his research group at Yale have developed a “cross-training” program for the brain, combining both computer-based and physical exercises to improve the brain’s ability to learn.

“Up to now, we have not been using computer technology to teach specific curricular material like reading or math,” explained Wexler, “but rather to harness the power of brain plasticity — the ability of the brain to rewire itself — to enable users to pay better attention and learn more effectively when presented with a variety of curricular content material delivered through more traditional classroom methods.”

Wexler’s pioneering cross-training program for the brain is being used in over 100 schools across the United States. In the process, Wexler’s program caught the attention of the Roddenberry Foundation, headed by Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, the son of “Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry.

The Roddenberry Foundation awarded Wexler’s research group $385,833 to advance their brain training programs by integrating grade-level and subject-specific lessons into their computer-based format, a goal that Wexler describes as potentially a “quantum leap” in education.

With the support of the foundation, Wexler and his team are now working with computer game designers and top school districts in the United States to develop these new and engaging types of training programs. They hope that these innovations to their existing training regimen will further increase their impact in schools by assisting children of all abilities to more readily learn specific subjects and skills, and help teachers to integrate these educational programs into their formal school curriculums.

Evaluating the previous school trials and knowing how to improve the program has continued to be a significant challenge for Wexler and his team. “We’ve been sitting here with 50 million data points, but without the capacity to evaluate the information,” he says.

To help, the Roddenberry Foundation has also facilitated a collaboration between Wexler’s Yale-based team and the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST) at University of California-Los Angeles. CRESST will receive $190,000 to analyze the data from Wexler’s school trials and help the Yale team evaluate improvements in student learning.

“This work takes a lot of effort and we hope that it has a big impact on learning — receiving this gift was a real emotional boost,” said Wexler, noting that he and his team have a lot of work ahead of them as they develop the new programs for evaluation in schools in February 2015.

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