Math Snacks Early Algebra Using Games and Inquiry to Help Students Transition from Number to Variable

This project will develop games to build conceptual understanding of key early algebra topics. The materials will be freely accessible on the web in both English and Spanish. The project will develop 4-5 games. Each game will include supporting materials for use by students in inquiry-based classroom lessons, and web-based professional development tools for teachers.

Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
1503507
Funding Period: 
Tuesday, September 1, 2015 to Saturday, August 31, 2019
Full Description: 

The Discovery Research K-12 program (DRK-12) seeks to significantly enhance the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by preK-12 students and teachers through research and development of innovative resources, models and tools. Projects in the DRK-12 program build on fundamental research in STEM education and prior research and development efforts that provide theoretical and empirical justification for proposed projects.

Many U.S. students enter college without the necessary background in algebra to be successful in advanced mathematics and science courses, and are thereby blocked from many rewarding careers. Oftentimes, the problem goes back to early algebra in grades 4-6, where students are introduced to abstract formulations before they understand the underlying ideas and the reasons for the questions being asked. As a result of inadequate preparation many students turn away from mathematics when faced with abstract algebra. Without mathematics, students are not able to enter the STEM field which results in a weakened workforce in these fields in the United States. In this 4-year Full Research and Development project, Math Snacks Early Algebra: Using Games and Inquiry to Help Students Transition from Number to Variable, the interdisciplinary research group from New Mexico State University will build on their success in using games to increase students' understanding of proportional reasoning and fractions. They will develop games to build conceptual understanding of key early algebra topics. The materials will be freely accessible on the web in both English and Spanish. The project will develop 4-5 games. Each game will include supporting materials for use by students in inquiry-based classroom lessons, and web-based professional development tools for teachers.

Most students do not understand the variety of distinct ways that variables are used in mathematics: unknowns to be solved for, related quantities, general properties of numbers, and other uses. Algebra courses often emphasize the rules of manipulation, with less time spent on the underlying ideas. Students see variables as confusing new material, rather than as shortcuts for making sense of numbers, or as powerful tools for analyzing interesting problems. This hinders students' later interest and progress in STEM courses and careers.The intellectual merit for this R & D project includes the development of a new way to learn key underlying concepts in algebra, further investigation of the affordances of games and technology in learning abstract mathematical concepts, and a better understanding of learning assessment in early algebra. The broader impact for this R & D project includes making these tools widely available to students, and the potential shift of teachers towards effective mathematical pedagogy that is engaging and inquiry-based. Development will begin with existing research on early algebraic thinking and learning, and proceed through an iterative process involving design, testing in the NMSU Learning Games Lab, testing in classrooms, and back to design. The project will then study the effect of the developed materials on student understanding and on classroom learning environments. Qualitative and quantitative measures will be used. Researchers will use a custom measure aligned with NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) and other standard tests, interviews and observations with teachers and students, and embedded data collection and self-reports on frequency and extent of game usage. After two earlier pilot studies, in the final year a delayed intervention study will be conducted with 50 teachers and their students. The Math Snacks team has existing partnerships for distribution of games and materials with PBS, GlassLabs, BrainPOP, and others. Academic findings of the project will be shared through conferences and research publications.

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