Adriana M. Chavez, For the Sun-News Published 12:08 p.m. MT Dec. 8, 2018
LAS CRUCES – Researchers at New Mexico State University are looking at how fourth- and fifth-grade students can better understand early algebra concepts after using educational video games developed by the Math Snacks research team at NMSU. In turn, research findings will also help Math Snacks developers create additional materials that will improve students’ grasp of algebra concepts.
Math Snacks Early Algebra is funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, which originally awarded Math Snacks $3.5 million in 2009 to create five games and six animations to help middle school students improve their learning of math concepts, and an additional $3 million in 2015 to continue the project. In addition to the development and research, the Math Snacks project also provides professional learning opportunities to local elementary teachers.
The Early Algebra research is overseen by senior program manager Sara Morales, along with a multi-disciplinary team of project investigators and graduate students. The project is a prime example of how research and development is done across colleges. Primary investigator Karen Trujillo is housed in the College of Education, and Barbara Chamberlin oversees the development of the games in the Learning Games Lab in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
Ted Stanford from the math department in the College of Arts and Sciences approves the mathematics content for the project. Chris Engledowl, a mathematics educator in the College of Education, provides insight on student assessment and collaborated with three expert reviewers at other universities to ensure that each assessment item aligned with the new games and with the standards. Engledowl also conducted interviews with pairs of students that included English learners, special education and regular education students in order to field test the assessment before using it in the study.
The final research project will require the Early Algebra research team to use mixed methodologies to collect their data, including online teacher and student surveys, classroom observations, mathematics content tests, and embedded data each time a student plays a game on the computer.
“During the first round of Math Snacks, we developed a suite of five games and six animations and their accompanying materials to teach math concepts of place value, ratios/proportion, fractions and the coordinate grid,” Morales said. “In Math Snacks Early Algebra we are developing and researching games and activities to support learning in three key components of early algebra: properties of operations, patterns and relationships, and writing and interpreting expressions.”
According to Morales, a key part of the research and development involves extensive user testing by local students. For the past three years, local students have been providing feedback to the Math Snacks team during summer camps, in their classrooms and during consulting sessions at the Learning Games Lab with Amanda Armstrong, a Ph.D. candidate in education.
“Those students who have been involved with the user testing of the new games for Early Algebra feel so enthusiastic about being part of the consultant group, which helps us bring the games and materials to the final stage before making them public,” Morales said. “When visiting classrooms, students always greet us with a smile and they feel special knowing that they are part of a research and development project that will soon be available for the general public.”
During the summer camp, six teachers and 45 students tested supplementary lessons, and both students and teachers provided feedback on what did and didn’t work, Morales said. Students had the opportunity to play Math Snacks games, which allowed game developers to collect additional data to fine tune the games as needed.
Researchers recently completed their first round of observations in local classrooms. Those observations will serve as baseline data.
“This year, we will be collecting research data from the 28 teachers and over 500 students from Las Cruces Public Schools,” Morales said. “We provided a Math Snacks social orientation in September, and then a professional development session in November so that teachers begin to explore the new games and their accompanying materials. We will provide another professional development session in January before they introduce the new games to their students.”
After the final professional development session, teachers will return to their classrooms ready to implement the new Math Snacks lessons.
“We will do a pre-post assessment of students to see how their math knowledge changes as a result of using the games. Post surveys done by teachers will also give us insight to changes in teachers’ perception of inquiry-based learning and the use of games for learning mathematics,” Morales said.
Researchers will continue to collect data until the end of the school year in May. After that, they will analyze the data and publish findings. The new Math Snacks games will be available in July 2019 at the Math Snacks website. Existing games and animations can be found for free at http://mathsnacks.org.
“Eye on Research” is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s feature was written by Adriana M. Chávez of NMSU’s Marketing and Communications. Chávez can be reached at 575-646-1957.