“Research with soft edges”: teaching and translation beyond a STEM/ HASS divide

left photo, torso and legs of child jumping, wearing ankle bracelet. Right: neck-down image of child kicking a ball
 School learners wearing Exercise Motion Capture (XMO) wearable ankle bracelets, kicking and jumping. Photo: Dr Natalie Lander

As schools across Australia reopen, returning will present a highly varied experience of motor learning. Whilst some would have been incredibly active, climbing trees, engaging in ‘risky play’, taking plenty of walks or playing physical games, others may hardly have left their homes and missed out on movement in the classroom. This enormous variation is a challenge for teachers and learners who lack an accurate proxy motor skill assessment tool. 2021 SSN Incubator grantee Dr Natalie Lander has made enormous strides in this area.

Dr Lander always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She worked across the higher education sector for over a decade and this experience, in conjunction with her dual expertise in physical education and sciences, positioned her to identify a genuine void in physical education at the threshold of secondary school. Pupils often enter secondary school under skilled and underprepared for secondary physical education curriculums (primary teachers in phys-ed do not require a specialisation despite the foundational importance in this age-group). Unlike in literacy and numeracy areas, high school teachers have no baseline tool to assess motor skills, and little support to develop this crucial area. It was this insight that drew Dr Lander back into higher education, where she completed postgraduate study that opened the door to  her present position as a Senior   Research Fellow in the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN). Lander describes a “research-to-practice gap” as requiring the “translational piece” and this blogpost describes her translational work. We learn that this is based on a philosophy that draws on education, requires acute attention to relationships and rigour, and blurs and blends scientific and humanities perspectives.

The first lesson that teaching has brought to our project is that centring our stakeholders (teachers and learners) is crucial in participant-led research process. The most instrumental thing a teacher can do is to instil a sense of confidence, the feeling that ‘I can do this’. Research shows that involving students in their outcomes helps them gain self-determination and fosters improvement.  Our Exercise Motion Capture (XMO) wearable sensors allow students to harness cutting-edge technology, and to see the avatars that help make education more effective and productive for them and their educators. We have also worked with teachers at every step. We take their incredibly busy schedules seriously as we build a system to support and ease their work with automation. Founded on our rigorous foundational research, this iterative process has allowed us to translate our skills and knowledge into an effective response to a genuine problem.

Authentic partnerships across diverse disciplines have been central. This requires an openness to synergies and alternative perspectives. Whilst I have a thorough grasp in a narrow field, I know there is much more out there. So, the edges to my research have been very soft. Straddling education and health, I draw on the rigour of health research and then ask how this can be disseminated and translated into teaching and beyond. Education really is at the heart of that. In practical terms, being open to collaboration requires being aware of researchers around you. For example, I connect with targeted conferences and bodies that promote transdisciplinary work, and keep abreast of internal communication that alerts me to the research expertise we have at Deakin. In fact, an early mismatch between our team and a funder who had differing expectations than us forced us to amicably terminate that project. We then looked internally and were delighted to find the extremely talented team at the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI) in our own backyard! This collaboration led to our first SSN grant in 2019.

Left: Example of XMO on-screen avatars and data intake. Right: Example of user interface.

Looking after relationships with industry and bodies is absolutely critical. Drawing again on a teaching philosophy that centres self-determination, I have found that  ensuring my own work is highly rigorous and to best standards gives me the confidence to engage meaningfully with partners at every level of an organisation. Being professional, and respectful in all emails, replying on time and meeting deadlines are simple but important practices. Really listening to partners while knowing that their needs are different to yours is vital.

Interdisciplinary work suits me in the sense that my research doesn’t grant me a clear ‘place’ in either HASS or STEM. There is such a blur in my work. Is it educational theory or health outcomes? Motor outcomes, or a students perceived value in the classroom? Both of these carry their own critiques. ‘Skill’ is often critiqued in educations as part of very scientific, objectifying process. However, if you develop skill in a student it creates a sense of value, improving self-esteem, improving engagement, persistence and improvement, all of which educational theory strives for. My work lies in connecting and translating between these modes.

Infographic slide titled 'System Blue Priont'. Shows three stages. One: Golf standard performance (baseline) with image of athlete, device and heart rate symbol. Linked via 'machine learning model' to stage two: School data Collection (population data), showing animation of children beside school, devices, and machine cube. lines links to three: Prototype Complete Analysis System. Depicts ipad with cube, vibrating device.
Research development infographic

Being a good teacher means understanding that people come with different priorities, experiences and visions. You have to ensure that everyone feels valued. Connection is the key to education. Bringing that philosophy to research along with an openness to learning (including from my own PhD students) has created a strong backbone for our ongoing collaborative project. In sum, both my experiences as a teacher and my interdisciplinary work share a set of values that can be described as ‘education’.

You can read more about the XMO project in key publications here and here or the Deakin Disruptr blog here. Dr Lander’s collaborators on the grant were Professor Lisa Barnett, Dr Darius Nahavandi, Ass. Prof Shady Mohamed,  Dr Eduarda Sousa-Sá, with data collection by PhD student Theresa Herring.

This article is the first in the Interdisciplinary Experiences series – a new post will be released every Tuesday for the next 3 weeks.