Category Archives: STEM

Digital 1-2-3s Make Math Sense for Preschool Kids

Every parent can see that birth to 5 is a whirlwind of learning. Many parents strive to include informal learning activities like the ABC’s.  But you may be surprised to learn that no aspect of early education is more important to a child’s academic future than mathematicsResearch from Greg Duncan at the University of California, Irvine shows that early math skills in 5 year-olds are the single greatest predictor of later achievement.

So at a recent early childhood education conference in Chicago, I was excited to see policy leaders, researchers, corporations and foundations rallying around the importance of supporting our youngest learners, including in math.  Their vision for accomplishing it … well, I found that less exciting as the only presentation focused on digital content for 4 year olds was my own.

Understandably. The vast majority of digital content “out there” for kids is of low educational quality. I enjoy Sponge-Bob, if not Disney princesses, as much as anyone. But having a 4 year old gesture her way through random edutainment apps is hardly the “transformation” of learning you’ve been hoping for. And yet, digital content is ideal for rapid scale-up, and every year we “wait” for a non-digital solution to reach scale, we miss out on yet another cohort of 4 million more 4 year-olds in the U.S.

So how do you judge digital program quality? First, look for a program that is radically different. Second, look for early, consistent, rigorous results. At the K-5 level, there is a digital, neuroscience-based math program —  MIND Research Institute’s ST Math, that has shown potential for radical transformation of learning. ST Math has successfully doubled and tripled annual growth in math proficiency for Grade 2-5 students on state tests, as it presents math concepts as a full in-school curriculum of visual, language-free puzzles of virtual onscreen manipulatives.

If there exists a proven math program that teaches math visually, without requiring language proficiency or even reading skills, then what better age to apply it to than pre-readers – especially ones who don’t necessarily speak any English! ST Math is currently being piloted in select teacher-led, site-based Pre-K classrooms in Los Angeles. Imagine a teacher working with a 4-year old digital native, who is using a tablet to get literally “hands-on” with number sense.

If we want to level the education playing field before traditional schooling even starts, and lay a solid foundation across the nation for lifelong success in STEM fields, we need to start young and be bold. Digital, unconventional, deeper-learning tools like ST Math may be the transformation you’ve been looking for.

A version of this blog was published in the September issue of District Administration.

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Game taxonomy? my corner of the map & the transformed learning moment

This post is from a virtual roundtable on

The taxonomy of games and indeed the distinctions between games and puzzles are important distinctions for understanding research. We need to distinguish the mammals from the fish, even animals from plants, by their properties. I’ve tripped across little-to-nothing myself along the lines of a game taxonomy, and if readers can share schema they’ve found useful along with why that’d be much appreciated and interesting.

I have the luxury of focusing for the last decade on one corner of this map – in-school, supplemental, computer-based math games; blended online/student with bricks/teacher. Even in that corner, there is a wide range of niches for “game software” to fill: diagnostic/assessment. skills practice. personalized practice problems. “real world” problem contexts. with or without teacher role. concept introduction. remediation: adaptive concept/skill re-teaching.

I suggest that in the STEM arena, where understanding complex relationships of ideas, rather than fact memorization alone, are the learning goals, a focus on the following question is in order:    What exactly is happening at the moment (in the game) where the student is learning something new? In other words, aggressively strip away all the non-subject-matter gameplay and identify the learning environment that remains.

Finally I suggest that if the learning environment that remains is an electronic version of conventional instruction, then we are not looking at a game-changer. It can be highly valuable (save time, easier access, more duty cycle, quicker feedback, formative info for teachers) but not transformative. And transformative is possible with games/puzzles. In other words, if our shiny 21st century learning environment, even a highly engaging game, still rests on passive absorption of content (as if watching a lecture) then I say we should not expect transformative results for all students.

Why Ed Tech is Mandatory for STEM Success

Our STEM Future Requires Advanced Math Peformance
Why is use of technology in K-12 education mandatory to realize STEM goals? One reason is the extreme high performance on mathematics that future STEM higher ed students need. No matter how excited they may have been by their childhood visits to science museums, and their hands-on project-based-learning, future STEM professionals need a very strong foundation in “M”. An analysis of Engineering freshmen at the University of California found that over 80% of them scored over the 80th percentile in math as 10th graders.

So being Proficient on a state standardized math test is no indication of a strong enough math foundation. In California recently the raw score equivalent to meeting proficiency in elementary math was 67% correct on a 65 question multiple choice test. This used to be a “D” grade. Our objective for meeting STEM goals is to maximize students at the Advanced level – which is 80% to 85% – at least a “B” grade.

Something you can ONLY do with ED Tech
This kind of high performance is achievable for the majority students, and is a realistic goal – but at scale it requires ed tech. And it requires the kind of ed tech that is not an online rehash of the same offline approaches that in the past have not been successful for far too many students. You should be looking for approaches that use technology to do something truly different, something not possible before technology.

Struggle and Confidence
An example of a difference that only technology can deliver is 1:1 game-based learning. But every game is not created equal, nor equally effective. Online games need to follow a rigorously researched and field-tested instructional design. One component of that design that is very relevant to future STEM professionals is for the game to have designed-in struggle. And the struggle shouldn’t be a sideshow to the learning. Not a joystick, not navigation or searching, not timing a button. The struggle needs to be with the learning content itself – designed to challenge every student and cause them to fail – and to think. A second vital component is to provide continuous informative feedback. A red “x” , “Try Again,” does not cut it. Only technology can provide real-time, visual animated feedback that informs how and why an answer caused failure – or why it worked. Why is overcoming struggle key for STEM? Because STEM courses in high school and beyond are challenging. They will eventually push most students to their limits. And the experience at earlier ages of persistence overcoming challenges leads to earned confidence that will sustain learning.

Interactive animated game for Venn Diagrams (Grade 1)

Visual Problem-solving
An example of truly different, game-based learning is MIND Research Institute’s visual math software for K-8 students, ST Math®. ST Math presents math to students as visual puzzles and animated diagrams with which they interact, and from which they literally see how the math works.

Side-benefits of this visual approach are up-front reduction of complexity, abstract symbols and the language barrier, particularly for English Learners. Another unique advantage, especially valuable for future STEM professionals, is a heightened affinity for visual problem-solving methods in general.


Results Santa Ana Unified Closing the Achivement Gap

When ed tech is applied this way, what kind of results are happening? One example at a district wide level is in Santa Ana Unified, California. The district averages 84% economically disadvantaged and 73% English Learners. Since 2005, the district has gone from 13% to 94% of its elementary schools using ST Math. In that time, its achievement gap from CA state averages in math proficiency has been eliminated.


A second example is from the Los Alamitos Unified district. Weaver Elementary, under the leadership of principal Erin Kominsky, has been using ST Math software since 2000. In 2011, Weaver averaged 99% of its students proficient, with grade 4 100% proficient. 85% of Weaver’s students tested into that pre-Engineering Advanced level of math, with over 80 students scoring a perfect 600/600 in 2011.


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