The development of Alien Rescue is guided by a Design-Based Research framework (The Design-Based Research Collective, 2003) and research is an integral part of the development and is an ongoing effort by the R&D team. At each step of the development process, classroom based research is conducted to see how students use various features of the program and what teachers think of the new features. Program features/tools that are shown to be effective through research has been incorporated into the core of the Alien Rescue and disseminated to schools. Here are the research papers completed so far. This list is growing as we continue conducting studies with Alien Rescue.   The design of Alien Rescue is informed by ... more
research on problem-based learning (PBL), an innovative instructional approach in which learning occurs as a result of students' efforts to solve a complex problem (Barrows, 1996; Savery, 2006). Instruction begins with the presentation of a problem situation. Students work in teams to identify problem constraints, form hypotheses, collect and analyze data, and develop a solution plan.
To assist students in their problem solving process, Alien Rescue provides a variety of new media enriched cognitive tools, including a database of information on our solar system, a database on the alien characteristics, a database on probe missions carried out by NASA, a probe design tool, mission status tool, a notebook, notebook comparison tool, visual tutorials on various scientific concepts. With all these cognitive tools at their fingertips, students can concentrate on solving the problem and teachers can make best use of their time to facilitate the learning process. The roles of students and teachers are therefore shifted. Students become active seekers of knowledge, while the teacher becomes the "guide on the side," helping students find the information and learn the skills they need to solve the problem.


Research Studies on Alien Rescue

Students' Learning, Motivation, Attitudes, Self-Efficacy, Goal-Orientation

Liu, M., Rosenblum, J., Horton, L., & Kang, J. (2014). Designing Science Learning with Game-Based Approaches. Computers in the School, 31(1/2), 84-102. DOI:10.1080/07380569.2014.879776

Liu, M., Horton, L., Kang, J., Kimmons, R. and Lee, J. (2013). Using a Ludic Simulation to Make Learning of Middle School Space Science Fun. The International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, 5(1). 66-86. DOI: 10.4018/jgcms.2013010105, 5(1). 66-86. DOI: 10.4018/jgcms.2013010105

Kimmons, R., Liu, M., Kang, J. & Santana, L. (2011-2012). Attitude, Achievement, and Gender in a Middle School Science-based Ludic Simulation for Learning. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 40(4), 341-370.

Liu, M, Horton, L., Olmanson, J. & Toprac, P. (2011). A Study of Learning and Motivation in A New Media Enriched Environment For Middle School Science. Educational Technology Research and Development (ETR&D) 59(2), 249-266. doi:10.1007/s11423-011-9192-7.

Liu, M., Toprac, P., & Yuen, T. (2009). What Factors Make a Multimedia Learning Environment Engaging: A Case Study. In R. Zheng, (Ed.) Cognitive Effects of Multimedia Learning (pp. 173-192). Hershey, PA: Idea Group Inc.

Hsieh, P. H., Cho. Y., Liu, M., & Schallert, D. L. (2008). Examining the interplay between middle school students’ achievement goals and self-efficacy in a technology-enhanced learning environment. American Secondary Education Journal, 36(3), 33-50.

Liu, M., Hsieh, P., Cho, Y. J. & Schallert, D. L. (2006). Middle school students’ self-efficacy, attitudes, and achievement in a computer-enhanced problem-based learning environment. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 17(3). 225-242.

Liu, M (2005). The effect of a hypermedia learning environment on middle school students' motivation, attitude, and science knowledge. Computers in the Schools, 22(3/4), 159-171.

Liu, M. (2004). Examining the Performance and Attitudes of Sixth Graders During Their Use of A Problem-Based Hypermedia Learning Environment. Computers in Human Behavior, 20(3), 357-379.


Design & Understanding the Use of Cognitive Tools to Mediate Learning:

Tool Use Patterns

Bogard, T., Liu, M., & Chiang, Y. H (2013). Thresholds of Knowledge Development in Complex Problem Solving: A Multiple-Case Study of Advanced Learners’ Cognitive Processes. Educational Technology Research and Development, 61(3), 465-503..DOI 10.1007/s11423-013-9295-4

Liu, M., Horton, L., Toprac, P. & Yuen. T. (2011). Examining the Design of Media Rich Cognitive Tools as Scaffolds in a Multimedia Problem-Based Learning Environment. In M. Orey, S. A. Jones, & R. M. Branch (Eds.), Educational Media and Technology Yearbook (EMTY), 36. DOI 10.1007/978-1-4614-1305-9_10. New York: Springer.

Liu, M., Horton, L., Corliss, S. B., Svinicki, M. D., Bogard, T., Kim, J., & Chang, M. (2009). Students’ problem-solving as mediated by their cognitive tool use: A study of tool use patterns. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 40(1). 111-139.

Bera, S. & Liu, M. (2006). Cognitive tools, individual differences, and group processing as mediating factors in a hypermedia environment. Computers in Human Behavior, 22(2). 295-319.

Liu, M., Bera, S., Corliss, S., Svinicki, M., & Beth, A. (2004). Understanding the connection between cognitive tool use and cognitive processes as used by sixth graders in a problem-based hypermedia learning environment. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 31(3), 309-334.

Liu, M, & Bera, S. (2005). An Analysis of Cognitive Tool Use Patterns in a Hypermedia Learning Environment. Educational Technology Research & Development, 53(1), 5-21.

Design of Tools

Liu, M., Yuen, T. T. Horton, L., Lee, J., Toprac, P. and Bogard. T.(2013). Designing Technology-Enriched Cognitive Tools To Support Young Learners’ Problem Solving. The International Journal of Cognitive Technology, 18(1), 14-21.

Li, R. & Liu, M. (2008). The Effects of Using A Computer Database Tool on Middle School Students’ Cognitive Skill Acquisition in A Multimedia Learning Environment. In R. Kobayashi, (Ed.) New Educational Technology. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Li, R. & Liu, M. (2007). Understanding the effects of databases as cognitive tools in a problem-based multimedia learning environment.Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 18(3), 345-363.

Pedersen, S. & Liu, M. (2002). The transfer of problem-solving skills from a problem-based learning environment: the effect of modeling an expert's cognitive processes. Journal of Research on Technology in Education. 35(2), 303-320.

Pedersen, S. & Liu, M. (2002). The effects of modeling expert cognitive strategies during problem-based learning. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 26(4), 353-380.

Overall Design

Liu, M., Horton*, L., Lee*, J., Kang*, J., Rosenblum*, J., O’Hair*, M. & Lu*, C. W. (2014). Creating a Multimedia Enhanced Problem-Based Learning Environment for Middle School Science: Voices from the Developers. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning8(1). Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.7771/1541-5015.1422

Liu, M, Williams, D., & Pedersen, S. (2002). Alien Rescue: A Problem-Based Hypermedia Learning Environment for Middle School Science.Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 30(3), 255-270.

Pedersen, S., Liu, M. & Williams, D. (2002). Alien Rescue: Designing for Student-Centered Learning. Educational Technology. 42(5), 11-14.


Facilitating Teachers’ Use of Learner-Centered Learning Environments

Liu, M., Wivagg, J. Geurtz, R., Lee, S. T. & Chang. M. (2012). Examining How Middle School Science Teachers Implement A Technology Enriched Problem-Based Learning Environment. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning. 6(2), 46-84. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.7771/1541-5015.1348

Pedersen, S. & Liu, M. (2003). Teachers' beliefs about issues in the implementation of a student-centered learning environment. Educational Technology Research and Development. 51(2), 57-76.


Dissertations & MA Reports Based on Alien Rescue

Horton, L. (2014). The effects of problem-based learning scaffolds on cognitive load, problem-solving, and student performance within a multimedia enhanced learning environment, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.

Toprac, P. (2008). The Effects of a Problem Based Learning Digital Game on Continuing Motivation in Learning Science. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.

Smith, A. (2008). Using a Hypermedia Problem-Based Learning Tool in an Informal Learning Environment: Challenges and Lessons Learned, Unpublished master report, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.

Bogard, T. (2005). Advanced Learners’ Use of Cognitive Tools in a Hypermedia Problem Based Learning Environment: A Case Study, Unpublished master report, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.

Li, R. (2005). The Effects of Databases as Cognitive Tools in a Multimedia Problem Based Learning Environment. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.

Corliss, S. (2005). The effects of reflective prompts and collaborative learning in hypermedia problem-based learning environments on problem solving and metacognitive skills. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.

Stephan Bera, S. (2004). The Nature of Cognitive Tool Use in a Hypermedia Learning Environment. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.

Pedersen, S. (2000). Cognitive Modeling During Problem-Based Learning: The effects of a hypermedia expert tool. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.

Williams, D. (1999). Hypermedia-supported Authentic Learning Environments (HALE): Examination of Tools and Features Which can Support Students Learning. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.

Rhodes, S. (1998). Interactivity in Computer-Based Learning Environments. Unpublished master report, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.

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word cloud

"How do you describe Alien Rescue to a friend?"
Liu, Horton, Olmanson, & Toprac (2011)


      Alien Rescue is a great example of problem-based learning. Our test and quiz grades are higher than the years before when we did not use Alien Rescue.

Carrera Crockett (Teacher)
Running Brushy Middle School, Leander, TX


Science Knowledge Test scores
(Significantly different from the pretest, p < .01)
Liu, Rosenblum, Horton, & Kang (2014)


      I was amazed at how, after two weeks, all 125 of my students were still so drawn to Alien Rescue.

Rachel Vangsnes (Teacher)
Four Points Middle School, Leander, TX


Students were asked to compare Alien Rescue to other Science activities

Liu, Horton, Kang, Kimmons, & Lee (2013)