PED endorses story-telling approach to math

Taos-based company MidSchoolMath’s math program uses interactive storytelling to engage middle school students in learning. (Photo courtesy MidSchoolMath)

A lot more middle school students may be traveling to Mars or navigating the open seas on ancient ships to study math following state endorsement of a Taos company’s digital animation and video curriculum.

MidSchoolMath LLC has developed a comprehensive math program that uses interactive story telling to engage middle schoolers in virtual worlds where they use math to resolve problems.

In December, the New Mexico Public Education Department selected the program for inclusion on its official list of instructional materials that schools and school districts can choose from to teach the state’s fifth- to eighth-graders core math standards.

It’s the first New Mexico-based publisher to get its math curriculum included on that list. To do that, a company’s product must pass a detailed review by New Mexico math teachers who are selected from across the state by the PED each year to assess all instructional materials proposed for inclusion.

MidSchoolMath was the only New Mexico company to apply, said PED Instructional Materials Bureau Chief Anthony Burns.

“It’s pretty rare for us to have a local publisher submit materials, especially for math,” Burns told the Journal. “It’s a pretty rigorous process that our reviewers do.”

Taos-based company MidSchoolMath’s math program uses interactive storytelling to engage middle school students in learning. (Photo courtesy MidSchoolMath)

MidSchoolMath, which launched in 2009, aims to replace traditional, text-based math lessons with computer games and live video filmed with real actors to provide immersive, multimedia platforms that make math fun, drawing kids into colorful, fantasy adventures where they wield math tools to solve things.

The company developed its program with about $4 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation and other organizations. It’s already used in about 50 schools in 17 states, reaching nearly 40,000 middle school students.

That includes adoption by three school districts in Illinois, California and New Mexico, where Central Consolidated Schools in the Four Corners Area now uses it, said company co-founder and executive producer Jennifer Lightwood.

“We look for schools that are open to changing the paradigm of a teacher standing in front of the class,” Lightwood said. “We’ve created a full tool set that teachers can use where students in class can directly work through challenges.”

The company has developed 139 different simulations that together address all of the state’s 136 core math standards for middle schoolers, with different sets of questions and challenges posed to students based on grade levels, said co-founder and CEO Scott Laidlaw.

One game, for example, takes place in the 1600s on a sea vessel, allowing students to learn algebra while navigating the open seas, trading spices and contending with pirates. Others include riding on a spaceship to Mars or dealing with problems in the time of the black plague.

“We combine film with real actors and software-built simulations,” Laidlaw said. “We used a green screen to film inside a spaceship, and to create a high-tech doctor’s office and laboratory.”

All the videos were shot in New Mexico with New Mexico talent, with dozens of scenarios filmed on location.

“We shot an avalanche rescue scenario in Taos and we filmed a treasure hunt at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge near Taos,” Lightwood said. “In another scenario, we used a ranch outside of Santa Fe to create an Old West set with live mules and wagons.”

For each scenario, the class as a whole watches the video together. They’re then challenged to resolve problems faced by the video characters with an online math simulator that offers interactive engagement.

In the avalanche rescue, students must use perpendicular number lines with a coordinate plane, or grid, system to tell Hattie the rescue dog where she can find a victim buried in the snow.

In the treasure hunt, students use a map and basic coordinates to guide hunters to treasure.

The simulator shows students the result of their calculations through animation. They can repeat their efforts until they get it right.

A teacher dashboard simultaneously provides educators with real-time metrics on student efforts and problem completion.

A three-year NSF-funded effort to assess the program’s effectiveness showed impressive results in student learning and retention. In randomized control trials involving more than 1,100 students, MidSchoolMath’s curriculum scored above all other publishers in student achievement gains and engagement, Laidlaw said.

It achieved a 1.24 in “effect size,” or impact, in one trial, and 1.18 in another. Generally, .2 is considered low, .5 a medium rating, and .8 high, Laidlaw said.

“Typically publishers achieve a .4, so a 1.24 score is about three times higher than the usual rating,” he said. “We’re in the top 1% of all education research for text curriculum.”

Taos-based company MidSchoolMath’s math program uses interactive storytelling to engage middle school students in learning. (Photo courtesy MidSchoolMath)

Teachers who use the system report significant improvement in student success.

Turquoise Trail Charter School in Santa Fe has used MidSchoolMath for three years as one of the system’s early adopters, said Sharyn Gray, the charter’s middle school principal.

“It engages the kids in problem solving,” Gray said. “They have to think about what’s actually needed to solve a math problem instead of just being given a numerical or word problem. And the concept of teaching math through story telling gives context for the students to understand why they’re doing the math.”

It’s also fun, both for students and teachers, Gray added.

“When we do quick quizzes, the students get competitive, even cheering and talking with each other about the math,” she said.

Turquoise Trail math teacher Kristin Bruner said it makes math much less intimidating for students. In addition, the seventh- and eighth-grade classes she teaches now remember a lot more of what they learned because they’re not just memorizing formulas and rules but a story line with associated math.

“We test at the start of the year and again in December,” Bruner said. “On math growth, almost all the students improved greatly this past semester. It’s a brilliant hook to get students engaged and involved.”

MidSchoolMath’s inclusion on PED’s instructional materials list could mean a lot more local schools and school districts will adopt the curriculum going forward.

“We consider adoption on the list as our biggest achievement to date,” Laidlaw said. “We expect to work with a handful of school districts this year that are looking to make a change.”

See MidSchoolMath’s curriculum in action

Video establishing the problem:

Video reviewing the solution:

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