Professors Arthur Powell, Miriam Rosenberg-Lee and Luis Rivera

SASN Researchers Win $2.7 Million Grant to Boost Minority Student Performance in Math

Three Rutgers University–Newark researchers are part of a group recently awarded a $2.7 million grant to launch an innovative online platform to help Black and Latino middle-school students develop their skills and identities as mathematical thinkers while fostering equity in the public educational system.

Arthur Powell, Professor of Mathematics Education in RU-N's Department of Urban Education, together with Assistant Professor Miriam Rosenberg-Lee and Associate Professor Luis Rivera of RU-N's Psychology department, are co-Principal Investigators (PIs) on the project, called Mathematical Thinkers Like Me (MLM), which is funded by the New Schools Venture Fund’s EF+Math program. 

They’ve teamed up with three additional co-PIs—Stephen Weimar at the 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education, Michael Jacobson from the University of Sydney, and Ann Renninger at Swarthmore College—to implement the first three-year phase of what they hope will be a five-year project in the Newark Public Schools District and the Vista Unified School District, just north of San Diego, CA.

“Our goal is to help students see themselves as capable of doing mathematics, and identifying and growing their interest in math so that the kinds of things they do will display their mathematical agency,” said Powell, who conceived the idea with Weimar after doing related work together for an earlier National Science Foundation grant.

The platform will allow students in different locations to collaborate on solving math problems in real time, moving objects around and conversing via online chat. Each move that a student makes onscreen will be seen by the others, and all will be able to chime in and share their strategies to move the process forward. 

The project’s content modules and curriculum, which the researchers are co-designing with participating teachers and Desmos, a leader in online math tools, will focus on algebra, rational numbers and geometry for 7th and 8th graders, and will expand to include 6th graders in the future. The team will likely pilot pieces of the project in the spring and is looking to roll it out fully next fall.

Rather than try to mimic or replace face-to-face instruction, the researchers are designing a platform that takes advantage of the medium to create a new learning experience. Their goal is to study the effects of this new approach on student learning, agency and executive functioning, along with teacher interactions and experience.

“There’s lots of interest in adding technology in education spaces, but what the spring [and Covid] demonstrated so clearly is that you can’t just take a classroom and put it on Zoom,” said Rosenberg-Lee. “So, how can you create an online system that takes advantage of that potential, that isn’t just recreating something but has new properties? That’s what makes this project particularly appealing.”

Our goal is to help students see themselves as capable of doing mathematics, and identifying and growing their interest in math so that the kinds of things they do will display their mathematical agency.

The project’s conception and design rest on decades of research in the fields of education, psychology, history, social theory and other disciplines. Central to it is the notion that students already bring valuable knowledge into the classroom, which can be leveraged to make subjects like math more relevant to their lives and provide them with agency as they wrestle with new ideas. Collaborating with others and articulating how they solved problems helps them further develop their identity as mathematical thinkers, and owning that identity is key to their continued growth and to building the kind of long-term social equity in mathematics education, and the field of mathematics, that educators and researchers have long sought.

“There’s a strong history regarding who’s represented and considered mathematicians in professional and educational settings, and we see how that translates into the overrepresentation of white males in mathematics,” said Rivera. “We know that identity is such a huge piece to student interest in math and STEM, because identity is linked to belonging to a community, and when you feel that you belong, that helps motivate and facilitate math engagement, agency and performance.”

This focus on equity also extends to implicit biases that teachers bring to the classroom, which can affect how they interact with children, and the researchers are including a professional development component to address this. 

Also central to the project is helping students build their executive-function (EF) skills. Years of research show that EFs correlate with math performance, and that some aspects of math draw on EFs more than others. For instance, calculation involves working memory when we hold numbers in our mind, while rational numbers like decimals and fractions require us to be flexible and inhibit, or hold back, some ideas as we dig deeper into a problem and discover better ideas and answers. Collaborating with others also helps us exercise EFs. In this project, the researchers are focused on what they call “EF in practice,” or the students building their EFs in the context of doing math collaboratively. 

“Some studies have shown that if you interweave the math and EF training, you get better results,” said Rosenberg-Lee. “So, our big empirical question is, will there be a virtuous cycle where your EFs get better, which helps you learn the math better, leading you to do more complicated math and develop stronger EFs? We anticipate that there will be a bidirectional relationship.” 

Since the technology enables student and teacher movements and interactions to be recorded, the research team will have rich data sets to work with to answer such questions, and teachers will also gain lots of valuable feedback by reviewing the online sessions. The team also envisions that after doing pre-assessments, implementation and post-assessments, they’ll come away with a curriculum product and practices that teachers can eventually use.

“We want students to see mathematics as something they develop so it isn’t something that comes from outside that’s done only by certain people,” said Powell. “By creating media and an environment that allows them to tell stories about how they solved problems, we hope to work toward greater equity in mathematics for all our students.”