Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researcher Erin Ottmar has been awarded a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop technology that will help middle school teachers better understand when and how students are succeeding or struggling while learning algebra.
Ottmar, an associate professor in the Department of Social Science and Policy Studies, will design and develop real-time artificial intelligence tools for digital mathematics platforms so that teachers can better detect, assess, and predict the math strategies and knowledge of their students.
“It’s difficult for busy teachers to quickly and efficiently identify the problem-solving strategies that students are using or failing to use as they learn algebra,” Ottmar said. “It’s a challenge that accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic as many schools moved to online classes. The goal of this project is to use data mining to develop tools that will provide useful information to teachers in real time to help them better instruct and guide students.”
To develop indicators of mathematical strategies and knowledge, Ottmar will use data collected during a large study from 1,300 students who played a digital math game, From Here to There, that uses Graspable Math technology. Graspable Math, which Ottmar helped develop with previous funding from the U.S Department of Education, enables students to dynamically solve math problems on a screen, such as a tablet or laptop computer, by dragging or clicking on numbers to move them around while solving problems. The technology alerts students if they make an incorrect move and logs all students’ actions and mathematical steps. Graspable Math is developed by Graspable Inc. of Bloomington, Indiana.
Ottmar’s five-year project is funded by a prestigious CAREER grant that supports researchers during the early stages of their academic careers. A former teacher, Ottmar joined the WPI faculty in 2015 and conducts interdisciplinary research that touches on cognitive science, learning science, psychology, and classroom technology.
During the project, Ottmar will co-design new tools with teachers, pilot the tools in classrooms, and launch a website with free public access to the tools for students, teachers, administrators, and researchers. WPI undergraduate and graduate students, as well as teachers and students from local schools, will participate in the research.
“Teaching is challenging, and classrooms are complex,” Ottmar said. “Providing teachers with real-time feedback that helps them notice students’ math strategies and misconceptions could ultimately make a tremendous difference in classrooms.”