Research News

High-School Math in the Cloud

North Carolina project strengthens students' math skills using cloud computing and videos

Math class may never be the same. When asked to create a right triangle, high-school students in four rural North Carolina school districts now turn to their laptops and begin stretching lines and tracing points. Once completed, students can drag the triangle in multiple directions and observe its behavior. Shifting a line eliminates the hallmark 90 degree angle. The right triangle morphs into an isosceles triangle.

"This [approach] is game-changing because the students have ownership and they are more likely to remember the theorems if they're working through the conditions used to develop them," says Karen Hollebrands, an associate professor of mathematics education in North Carolina State University's (NCSU) Math, science and technology education department.

To experience geometry in this interactive, highly visual environment, students and their teachers use a dynamic software package called Geometer's Sketchpad. They gain access to the software through NCSU's Virtual Computing Lab, which is an integral part of an innovative initiative funded by the National Science Foundation and designed to motivate high-school students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The initiative, called Scaling Up STEM Learning With the VCL, helps students improve their problem-solving and analysis skills in several ways:

  • Schools connect to NCSU's Virtual Computing Lab, enabling remote access to Sketchpad--software that gives students from third grade through college a tangible, visual way to learn mathematics;
  • Teachers receive year-round, in-depth training on the software; and
  • A collection of role model videos demonstrates how a variety of math concepts are used to solve real-world problems.

The scale-up project leverages North Carolina's existing technology initiatives. For instance, NCSU's Virtual Computing Lab is a private cloud--specifically designed for education activities--that allows schools to access advanced software remotely.

The program serves four districts: Chatham County, Edgecombe County, Greene County and Mooresville Graded. These districts are a good fit since they already are wired for high-speed Internet access and participate in the state's laptop initiative, which provides a laptop for each student.

"The state is spending a lot of money on hardware and not that much on how to use it. We created a content-specific professional development program to better utilize these tools over time," says Hollebrands, co-principal investigator of the scale-up project.

The project's professional development component--created by principal investigator Sarah Stein, Hollebrands and co-principal investigators Eric Wiebe and Henry Schaffer--includes an intensive summer workshop to learn the software and explore its applications as well as online activities to assist teachers with lesson planning and skills development.

An interactive online community also enables the teachers to work together to understand the software and share tips. In addition, the project's graduate students visit the schools each semester to observe teachers using the programs in their classrooms and give them feedback.

John Sheridan, a geometry teacher in the Chatham County School District, has used the software since 2003 and notes that "it would be pretty hard to imagine going back to teaching without the software. There's an excitement factor working with the technology."  He finds that his students are motivated when they see how geometry is used in real-world applications such as architecture or video game design.

To help teachers demonstrate applications of geometry and algebra, the scale-up project developed 17 "role model" videos. These three-to-four-minute snapshots feature a range of professionals--from transportation and network engineers to a fashion designer and oncology nurse--describing why math is important and how they use it in their jobs.

As Sheridan's class watched the video game designer tape, he heard an "audible 'Wow'" from a few students as the designer explained that all the characters in a video game are made with polygons. "That makes my job as a geometry teacher that much easier," he says.

The videos--aimed at ninth and 10th graders--were produced by Stein, an associate professor in NCSU's department of communication and doctoral candidate Jennifer Ware--both award-winning filmmakers. "These kids have no images to call on to get a sense of real-world applications," says Stein. Because of this, Stein and Ware wanted to make sure the role models included a diverse set of professionals and a variety of occupations. Where possible, they filmed individuals from local businesses.

This summer the researchers will begin supplying online annotations for each video that include math problems related to the video topic. This will extend their connection between math concept and application.

Funded by NSF's Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers program which supports efforts to address shortages of U.S. technology workers, the scale-up project's goal is to improve student motivation and achievement.

"We [focus on] student motivation through achievement because if you fail at the gateway courses--algebra and geometry--you may have a lousy feeling about math and won't want to take advanced math courses," explains Stein. "If you do well and overcome obstacles--even if you fear or dislike math--it builds confidence."

Although the program is just beginning to receive empirical assessment data, Stein says test scores for participating algebra classes increased for fall 2011 and that the number of students taking the SATs also increased. She adds that while progress can take time, several hopeful signs are emerging: Teachers are changing how they teach and more students are prepared to take the SAT in a student population where very few go to college. "This is a big deal," she says.