A sampling of Curry research findings relevant to the classroom

Middle School Science/Math

WISEngineering is a free online learning environment (www.wisengineering.org) that provides support for students and teachers to conduct engineering design projects in middle schools.

An R&D team led by Jennifer Chiu, Curry School assistant professor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, has been developing and testing the learning environment since late 2011.

The environment is similar to Coursera or Blackboard but specifically tailored to support engineering design projects. It has a Facebook-like Design Wall where students post their designs and get feedback from their peers, a Design Journal that records all of the students’ work, and a Design Portfolio where students pick parts of their Design Journal to share with their classmates and teachers.

It also includes automated student feedback and assessment, teacher feedback and monitoring tools, as well as project authoring tools for researchers and curriculum developers.

Research findings on the first three completed design projects indicated that middle school students significantly improved scores on state standardized tests. The learning environment helped teachers implement engineering design projects and helped students—especially those from at-risk and diverse student populations—learn Common Core mathematical concepts and principles.

Projects for high school students are currently in development.

Language Across Borders

Simply mixing English language learners in a classroom with native English speakers is often insufficient for relationships to form between students. Yet, social bonds engendered by frequent cross-linguistic peer interactions can be beneficial to both groups of students, especially the ELLs.

An extracurricular two-way language program, called Languages Across Borders, invited high-school-aged Spanish-speaking ELLs and English-speaking Spanish language learners to pair up for a 30-minute tutoring session before school every morning for seven months.

The curriculum encouraged lots of interactions, in which the students practiced their second languages with each other, according to program developer Amanda Kibler, assistant professor of English education.

Typically, students of different language backgrounds don’t interact socially. In a pilot study of this program, however, students learned more about each other’s culture, increased their confidence with the new language, and developed or deepened relationships with each other. The Latino students especially emphasized the value of talking in the hallways and other public spaces with their Spanish language learner partners and being acknowledged or greeted in front of other students.

At least for the students in the study, opportunities to collaborate with each other on meaningful tasks helped them bridge social gaps that could ultimately benefit them academically as well.

The Meaning of the Equal Sign

Elementary students use the equal sign more than any other mathematical symbol, yet they frequently misinterpret it as operational, telling them to do something. Students who think this way may see 10 = 5 + ___ and think, “I should add these two numbers.”

As students move into more advanced levels of mathematics like algebra, however, they struggle if they do not understand the equal sign as relational, a balance between two sides of an equation.

Math textbooks aren’t helping much to correct this misperception, according to an analysis by Sarah Powell, assistant professor of special education. She examined equation types and equal sign definitions in eight elementary mathematics curricula commonly used across the US, considering both student textbooks and teachers manuals.

Based on her findings, Powell recommends that at every grade level, teachers supplement published curricula with periodic reminders of the relational meaning of the equal sign. Students would also benefit if the same definition of equal sign were used across grade levels. (Sometimes the curricula provided different definitions within the same grade level!) Effective phrases include “the same as” and “the two sides are the same.”

Teachers can also help students better internalize the equal sign’s meaning by providing additional exposure to nonstandard equations, like 4 = 11 – 7, 12 = 12, and 9 x 4 = 12 x 3.

Powell's research was published in The Elementary School Journal, Vol 112, No. 4 (June 2012).

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