Seeing the Equation: A Visual Approach to Overcoming Math Challenges

Jeffrey Starns, Andrew Cohen, Darrell Earnest

From left: Jeffrey Starns (Psychological & Brain Sciences), Andrew Cohen (Psychological & Brain Sciences), and Darrell Earnest (Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies)

In a world governed by numbers, making informed decisions hinges on our understanding of statistics. Yet, for students, especially those with learning disabilities, grasping mathematical concepts presents significant hurdles. But imagine teaching math through engaging visuals before equations. This innovative approach, spearheaded by a multi-disciplinary team with support from IDS and the NSF, aims to make STEM education accessible and engaging for students of diverse abilities.

Navigating life's decisions often boils down to understanding odds and statistics, from health choices to financial planning. However, if calculating statistics is difficult for most people, people with learning disabilities face unique challenges. Developing more inclusive educational practices for mathematical concepts is thus critical to our individual and shared well-being. So, what if we could teach statistics visually first, then connect this understanding with equations? Would this improve learning for students of diverse abilities?

With a seed grant from IDS, a multi-disciplinary team of associate professors and Ph.D. students are at the forefront of answering these questions by developing an innovative instructional program for math. This program is specifically designed to bridge the mathematical understanding gap for students with learning disabilities by combining mathematical equations with intuitive visualizations.

The promise and preliminary successes of this project have paved the way for further recognition and support from the National Science Foundation (NSF). With a $300,000 grant for the "Improving Undergraduate STEM Education" (IUSE) program, the team is set to expand their work. This new project, "Effect of Visualization on Students’ Understanding of Probability
Concepts in an Innovative Learning Module" aims to mitigate the STEM learning divide, particularly among underrepresented groups and those traditionally challenged by math-heavy content. By further developing their model based on intuitive visuals, the team anticipates making STEM subjects more approachable and comprehensible, especially for those who struggle with math.

This NSF grant, a direct outgrowth of the IDS seed grant project, signifies a critical step towards reimagining math education. By testing the impact of visualization techniques on students with learning disabilities, the research not only promises to enhance educational inclusivity but also to foster a more diverse STEM community. Through this visionary approach, the team is not just teaching math; they're reshaping how students see and understand the world of numbers.