Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) have received a $185,085 subcontract for the second phase of design development and testing of Graspable Math, a digital platform that helps students learn algebra.

Erin Ottmar, assistant professor of learning sciences and psychology at WPI, and Katharine Sawrey and Jenny Yun-Chen Chan, postdoctoral fellows in learning sciences and technology, are co-principal investigators on the two-year project.

Students have traditionally worked algebraic equations by making notations on paper, but Graspable Math puts algebra onto tablet and laptop screens. Students click on or swipe numbers and symbols to solve equations and get instantaneous feedback on their actions, while teachers can monitor their work. Ottmar said research theories from learning science, cognitive science, and math education inform the design of activities.

“We’re trying to create activities that give kids the ability to learn algebra without boxing them into solving equations one way, because algebraic operations can sometimes be solved in an infinite number of ways,” Ottmar said. “The focus isn’t so much on correctness, but on getting kids to see larger patterns. What we’re going for is this environment where they can try things, and they can figure out what works and what doesn’t work.”

Work on the algebra tool is funded under a two-year, $900,000 Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to Graspable Inc. of Bloomington, Indiana. Graspable is a start-up company using technology developed at Indiana University and founded by Graspable President Erik Weitnauer, David Landy, and Ottmar.

Ottmar, Sawrey, Chan, and WPI learning sciences and technology graduate student Taylyn Hulse, were also involved in Phase I work on Graspable Math. Working with a small number of algebra students and teachers in Massachusetts, the researchers collected data on students as they solved math problems.