WPI Researchers Awarded Grant to Help K-12 Students Design Math Games

National Science Foundation funds work that aims to boost computational skills.
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December 05, 2019

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researchers have received a $745,612 grant to develop a website that children can use to design and play math games that develop computational thinking skills.

Ivon Arroyo, associate professor in learning sciences and technologies at WPI, is principal investigator on the three-year project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Co-principal investigators at WPI are Erin Ottmar, assistant professor of learning sciences and psychology, and Gillian Smith, assistant professor in computer science and interactive media and game development.


Computational thinking is a foundation of computer programming that requires abstract thinking and involves breaking a problem into steps a computer could execute. Computational skills typically are not taught until college, but children can learn them because they naturally create and play games with complex rules that require sophisticated thinking, Arroyo said.

“Computational skills are important because they can improve access to higher-level STEM careers,” Arroyo said. “We want everybody, regardless of socioeconomic status, to have access to a skill that could pull them toward STEM careers.”

The WPI team will build on previous research developing the Wearable Learning Cloud Platform (WLCP), a website for teachers and students. Under the guidance of teachers, students use the platform to play games and create math games for other students. The games require players to physically move around and collaborate in groups while solving math problems and entering solutions into mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablets. Designing games requires users to develop computational skills, break problems into pieces, consider the players’ perspectives, and anticipate their behaviors.

“Computational skills are important because they can improve access to higher-level STEM careers.
  • - Ivon Arroyo
  • Associate Professor of Learning Sciences and Technologies at WPI

More than 20 teachers and about 700 students have used the WLCP to create and play math games. Some games required students to solve problems while moving along a designated path. Other students designed games requiring players to lie on the ground to form geometric shapes, such as a parallelogram.

“A lot of what this project intends to do is get kids to move around and use their environment, but also think about abstract mathematical and computational concepts involved ingame design and programming,” Ottmar said.

The researchers plan to work with more teachers and students from kindergarten to 12th grade. They will test students before and after playing games to determine whether the games improve math scores, and they will assess how students perceive themselves as programmers after making and playing games.

The researchers also will improve the WLCP website by creating tutorials for teachers and students, and by developing a library of math games created by other teachers and students.

The research team includes undergraduate students Richard Valente, Luisa Perez, Olivia Bogs, and Grace Seiche; alumnus Matthew Micciolo; graduate student Hannah Smith; and doctoral candidates Francisco Castro and Avery Harrison.

Learning Math Through Wearable Technology: WPI faculty and students use games and smartphones to help students learn math more effectively.

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