Helping to Make Math “Graspable,” WPI Researchers Guide Design of Algebra Tool for Students and Teachers
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.
For Phase II, the WPI researchers will develop new instructional templates for Graspable Math, doubling the number of templates to 10. They will work with a small number of students and teachers while creating algebra content for the website over the first year of the subcontract.
“A lot of students in Algebra I are just manipulating the equations,” Sawrey said. “They know there are rules on how to move things around. Some students tend to follow those rules in a very arbitrary manner, and then they get lost, they can't solve the problem, and it’s frustrating. The idea with our templates is that the students are engaging with algebraic thinking and algebraic notation in new ways. The goal is that students don't have this frustration as they learn algebra, that they see the bigger picture in a new way.”
During the second year, the researchers will run a pilot study of Graspable Math in 40 ninth-grade classes with 800 students, then analyze results.
“One thing we will be looking at is student performance on tests before and after Graspable Math sessions,” said Chan. “We will look to see if there is improvement after doing these activities.”
After WPI researchers have completed their development of Graspable Math, independent education organization WestEd of San Francisco will evaluate it. Ottmar said the goal at the end of two years is to have an algebra product that could be commercialized.