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Game on: Taos company looks to change how math is taught

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

About 20,000 middle school students in 13 states are flying to Mars and navigating the open seas in ancient ships to learn basic math.

All thanks to a Taos company, MidSchoolMath LLC, which has created computer games and live video with real actors to offer a complete suite of fifth- to eighth-grade math curriculum that provides immersive, multimedia platforms to engage students in stories while solving problems.

The concept is the brainchild of Scott Laidlaw, a former middle school math teacher in Questa, and former CPA Jennifer Lightwood, who launched the company together in 2009 to weave storytelling directly into the teaching process with computer animation. The company has since won more than $2.5 million in grants and investment from federal agencies and local groups to build out their video games, shoot live-action video and package it all into a comprehensive curriculum for middle school math.

A still frame from MidSchoolMath's second video game, "Empires" which teaches math to middle school students

A still frame from MidSchoolMath’s second video game, “Empires,” which teaches math to middle school students. (Courtesy of MidSchoolMath LLC)

The latest funding, a $150,000 small-business innovation research grant awarded this month by the U.S. Department of Education, will allow MidSchoolMath to begin building its newest game, “Fate and Fortune.” That game, set in the 1600s, will allow eighth-grade students to learn algebra while navigating the open seas, trading spices and contending with pirates.

“Most publishing companies use textbook items with cheap clip art that they’ve moved online to a computer,” Laidlaw said. “We build problem sets into high-end film and software that let students do math problems on a spice-trade ship in the 1600s, on a spaceship to Mars or in times of the Black Plague.”

The underlying goal is to change today’s teaching paradigm to attack the infamous “midschool math cliff,” where students from fifth to eighth grade notoriously plummet in math skills. Laidlaw says that problem arises from just throwing an equation at students and asking them to solve it.

“Standard curriculum today is highly focused on computation, which is fine to memorize in early years up to fourth grade, but later it needs to be put into context for students themselves to define the variables,” Laidlaw said. “We work to immerse students into the context of a story where we give them questions and they need to define what’s important.”

That could be figuring out what’s needed to build an ancient sea vessel, including how big the cannons and cannon balls must be to repel attacking pirates.

The company’s first products were two computer-animated video games: “Ko’s Journey,” which tells the story of a Native American girl whose village has been attacked, and “Empires,” where the players are emperors in ancient Mesopotamia solving everyday problems.

The company then progressed to a full, computer-based curriculum using videos shot with live actors portraying scenes such as Roman guards discussing how to save money for a vacation.

A still frame from MidSchoolMath's second video game, "Empires," which is set in ancient Mesopotamia

A still frame from MidSchoolMath’s second video game, “Empires,” which is set in ancient Mesopotamia. (Courtesy of MidSchoolMath LLC)

A National Science Foundation grant allowed the company to test the curriculum with 435 students in one local school. The kids performed 2.3 times better on post-test scores compared with two of today’s most widely used standard curricula, Laidlaw said.

Steven Morgan, a math teacher at Carlsbad Sixth Grade Academy who participated in the study, said students were far more engaged with Roman guards.

“With other curriculum, you just ask students to solve an equation and they don’t care about it,” Morgan said. “With this, kids are connected enough that they’re eager to figure out how to help a Roman guard take a vacation. It gives them a real connection to what they’re doing.”

The Carlsbad academy is one of nine schools in New Mexico using the MidSchoolMath curriculum, along with others in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos.

The company, which now employs 12 people in Taos, holds an annual winter conference in Santa Fe on how to weave storytelling into curriculum. About 700 teachers from 42 states participated in the last one.

“Now that we have a comprehensive curriculum in place, our goal is to take on the big publishing companies that dominate school curriculum,” Laidlaw said. “We think we have something that can better support teachers and students.”