Teaching and Learning Algebraic Thinking Across the Middle Grades: A Research-based Approach Using PhET Interactive Simulations

This project addresses three central challenges: 1) the tendency for students to not engage in real mathematical thinking as they use technologies; 2) the tendency for teachers to not enact pedagogically-effective approaches; and 3) the lack of adoption of effective technologies by teachers due to a variety of barriers. This project will use rich, exploratory, interactive simulations and associated instructional materials as a pathway for making rapid progress and focusing on advancing algebraic thinking in Grades 6-9.

Lead Organization(s): 
Award Number: 
1503510
Funding Period: 
Tuesday, September 1, 2015 to Friday, August 31, 2018
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. 

Widespread, high-quality use of technology has great potential to transform today's mathematics classrooms and enable all students to develop a robust conceptual understanding of mathematics. Critical challenges are currently limiting the realization of this potential, and 69% of US Grade 8 students are scoring below proficient in national studies. In this 3-year Discovery Research K-12 Full Research and Development project, Teaching and Learning Algebraic Thinking Across the Middle Grades: A Research-based Approach Using PhET Interactive Simulations, the PhET Interactive Simulations group at the University of Colorado Boulder is partnering with mathematics education researchers at the University of South Florida St. Petersberg and Florida State University to address three central challenges, as follows: 1) the tendency for students to not engage in real mathematical thinking as they use technologies; 2) the tendency for teachers to not enact pedagogically-effective approaches; and 3) the lack of adoption of effective technologies by teachers due to a variety of barriers. This collaborative effort uses rich, exploratory, interactive simulations and associated instructional materials as a pathway for making rapid progress and focuses on advancing algebraic thinking in Grades 6-9.

This project seeks to enable teachers to fully-leverage the benefits of interactive simulations to advance student engagement and learning of mathematics, moving technology from the margins to a core part of instruction. The project will answer critical research questions, such as: how the design of an interactive simulation can generate pedagogically-productive use; how instruction with simulations can be best structured to support learning of mathematical concepts and engagement in mathematical practices; how sim-based instruction can be made attractive, feasible and effective for teachers; and finally, how student learning is impacted by sim-based instruction. At the same time, this project will produce a collection of open educational resources for teachers and students. These resources will include 15 research-based, student-tested simulations for teaching and learning of algebraic thinking, associated instructional support materials, and teacher professional development resources for effective implementation. Based on the 75 million uses per year of PhET?s science simulations, we expect these resources to transform mathematics instruction for millions of students and thousands of teachers.

This project will employ a variety of research methods to approach these questions. Researchers will use individual interviews from a diverse group of Grades 6-9 students as they use the 15 new simulations to examine usability, engagement, and achievement and to identify design approaches that stimulate productive use. In parallel, classroom-based studies in Colorado and Florida will investigate ways in which simulations can be combined with instructional materials and teacher facilitation to engage groups of students in inquiry, promote rich discussions of important mathematical ideas, and advance achievement in the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. The project will employ an iterative design and development process involving qualitative and quantitative analysis of diverse measures including the quality of mathematical instruction. Finally, a pilot study and an evaluation of teacher PD supports will examine the feasibility and fidelity with which teachers implement the innovation, and the impact on student learning.