New SMU grant from National Science Foundation takes math off the chalkboard and onto the streets


DALLAS (SMU) – To SMU math curriculum researcher Candace Walkington, the best way for students to understand math is to make it part of their lives. She’ll use her recent $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to help students see that math is in the angle of a giraffe’s neck at the Dallas Zoo and in the flutter of the leaves of the cottonwood trees at Twelve Hills Nature Center in Oak Cliff.

These are just two of the stops on Dallas STEM walks, guided walks that illustrate how mathematical principles can be found in one’s surroundings. During the five-year grant, Walkington will partner with Dallas STEM walk nonprofit, talkSTEM, to better understand how educators can support math education outside of school and the role out-of-school experiences like these play in enhancing math education. First up: developing an app that turns a cell phone into an interpretive math tool.

“In this research, rather than having kids see math as symbols that exist on a worksheet or on a computer screen, we want them to see it as something that exists in the world all around them – the trees, the buildings, the artwork and the things they use every day,” says Walkington, associate professor of teaching and learning at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. “We want to help them to look at the world through the lens of math.”

Researchers will spend the first year of this grant developing a gamified app called Mathfinder, which is targeted to students in grades four through eight. The app will use augmented reality (AR) to create overlays enabling learners to hold up the camera of their cell phones to see mathematical expressions layered over the real-world objects in their camera feeds, such as the angles and shapes within the architecture of a building. It also will include short videos and directions for STEM walks, Walkington says.

Students also will be able to use Mathfinder to create and share STEM walks in their own neighborhoods, says Elizabeth Stringer, director of academics for SMU’s Guildhall video game design program and a co-investigator on the grant. 

“Mathfinder will give feedback to students on the walks they create and provide data to community partners on how much time students spend at each stop,” she says.

STEM walks at nine Dallas learning sites will be featured in the app, including the Dallas Arboretum, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Zoo, Frontiers of Flight Museum, the GEMS Camp, the Girl Scouts STEM Center of Excellence, St. Phillips School and Community Center, Twelve Hills Nature Center and Voice of Hope Ministries. 

At the Dallas Arboretum, Dustin Miller, director of experience and innovation, says the four-stop Arboretum STEM walk is already popular with visitors.

“At the Arboretum’s Children’s Adventure Garden, the educational intent is very straightforward,” he says. “The main garden’s STEM walk, however, gives people a way to engage with the garden in a way they don’t expect.”

Participating in the research will give the Arboretum an opportunity to collect quantitative data on site, he says. “This research will help us create ways for visitors to experience the gardens in a new and different way.”

For Koshi Dhingra, founder and CEO of talkSTEM, a nonprofit dedicated to the development of future STEM leaders, participating in the research will help her nonprofit understand best practices for creating STEM walks and correcting roadblocks to learning. The creation of the Mathfinder app promises to make STEM walks more engaging and convenient, she says.

Dhingra earned her doctorate in science education and has dedicated her career to STEM education, but has new appreciation for the importance of understanding mathematical concepts as a building block for all sciences. 

“When students begin to see that math is all around them, not just in an algebra or calculus textbook, they begin to see themselves as math people,” she says. “They need this competency and confidence to open doors to other STEM fields.”

The NSF grant builds on Walkington’s previous research on math education. An associate professor of teaching and learning at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development, Walkington has earned more than $11 million in math education research grants, and in 2019 received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the U.S. Department of Education. Co-principal investigators for the grant include Dhingra; Anthony Petrosino, Simmons associate dean for research and outreach; Cathy Ringstaff, senior research associate, WestEd; and Elizabeth Stringer, director of academics, Guildhall.

 

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The Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at SMU (Southern Methodist University) reflects the University's vision of serving the most important educational needs of our city, region and nation, graduating students for successful careers in a variety of fields and providing educational opportunities beyond traditional degree programs. Recognized as a unique and transformative leader in education research, practice and policy, the School is committed to rigorous, research-driven programs that promote evidence-based, effective practices in education and human development.