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Building Educational Apps for Children

USF College of Education Professors Ilene and Michael Berson have a nearly two-decades-long interest in the integration of technology into social studies.   Photo by: Chris Joy | College of Education

By Barbara Melendez
      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 29, 2015) – Teachers of students in grades K through 5 are on the verge of gaining access to new apps to help children become engaged citizens thanks to the work of two innovative USF professors.

USF College of Education Professors Ilene Berson, Ph.D. and Michael Berson, Ph.D. are working with a distinguished team of software developers and educators on the project “KidCitizen Expandable Mobile and Online Apps for Elementary grades on Congress and Civic Participation,” which is being funded by a $336,000 grant from the Library of Congress and developed by Muzzy Lane Software.

The Bersons are co-principal investigators on the project and Muzzy Lane Software Vice President of Design Bert Snow will serve as principal investigator.

The apps, which can be used on iOS and Android devices and web browsers, will provide authentic, age-appropriate interaction with primary source materials, based on strong research and pedagogy. They will engage children in exploring civics and government concepts through historical sources, and connect what they find with their daily lives.

“Every component is being designed to build student literacy, critical thinking skills, and content knowledge,” said Michael Berson.

Together they stated, "The combined power of technological innovation and democratic ideals opens opportunities for greater access to information and offers a medium for young children to be heard and express their voices. It is essential for educated citizens in the 21st century to be engaged in activities that require them to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, creative visionaries, and accurate appraisers of information. The project team is filling a critical void in the currently available resources."

The Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world, with millions of books, recordings, photographs, maps and manuscripts. The Teaching with Primary Sources program is the Library of Congress’s premier educational outreach program for teachers. The goal of the program is to provide professional development for teachers focused on enhancing their ability to embed digitized primary sources from the Library of Congress into inquiry-based instruction.

A Distinguished Team

The Bersons are professors in the USF College of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning. Their prominent work on the intersection of technology and pedagogy of inquiry in the early years will provide a critical focus on this project to promote children’s engagement with primary sources through the affordances of these digital innovations.

The Muzzy Lane App Design and Development Team includes Dave McCool, Ralph Gerth and Tyler Vogel. Other partners on the grant will provide important leadership and expertise.

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Ph.D., Peter Levine, Ph.D. and Abby Kiesa from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Education (CIRCLE) will guide the project focus on embedding research-informed strategies to promote the civic and political engagement of young students with primary sources.

Noted Historians Edward L. Ayers, Ph.D., University of Richmond, and Spencer Crew, Ph.D., George Mason University, will advise the team on issues related to content selection, historical accuracy and public representations of history. Barbara Kirby, director of teaching with primary sources at Waynesburg University and coordinator of the Teaching with Primary Sources Eastern Region, will provide valuable insights on primary source selection and teacher professional development and dissemination.

Supervisor of Elementary Social Studies Daryl W. Saunders, Hillsborough County Public Schools, will serve on the project advisory board to guide content selection, developmental appropriateness of the design, and alignment with educational standards for the elementary grades. Cynthia Char of Char and Associates will lead the evaluation team.

The mobile and online resources the team develops will be freely available for use by educators, and the tools and templates will enable users to add new content and create new episodes for use in instruction.

Part of Long-Term Research Interests

This project represents a continuation of a long-running research interest for both USF professors.

“We have been engaged in research on using primary sources with young learners for almost 20 years,” said Ilene Berson.“In the past three years, we have received grants from the Eastern Region Teaching with Primary Sources program to prepare pre-service educators on developmentally appropriate instructional strategies with early childhood and elementary age students.”

Both professors engage in research on the integration of technology into social studies.Ilene Berson studies the intersection of technology and the pedagogy of inquiry in the early years with a focus on young children's affordances of digital innovations. Michael Berson has served as an advisor on the integration of technology into education for numerous companies and organizations.

“We are thrilled to have an opportunity to work together on an app that will enhance historical inquiry of young learners with engaging and interactive learning experiences,” Ilene Berson said.

Working on this project will take the Bersons to Washington D.C.

“Although many of the treasured resources of the Library of Congress are digitized, we do plan a few expeditions to Washington, DC to explore photos and artifacts that may only be accessible on site,” she said.

The Bersons are particularly proud to be associated with this venerable institution. They pointed out, “The Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program has been engaged in groundbreaking work to promote challenging and high quality instruction. Recently they have developed and released several freely accessible ibooks that feature Student Discovery Sets. These have been amazing resources for use in classrooms, providing interactive learning experiences. For teachers, the Library of Congress has also established a TPS Teachers Network, using the power of social networking to connect educators who are interested in integrating primary sources into instruction.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563