Engaging Math in Informal Learning Environments: Q&A with Tracey Wright

April 28th, 2015

The theme of this year’s Mathematics Awareness Month is Math Drives Careers, the aim of which is to increase awareness of employment opportunities for students of mathematics. Although math is an important part of formal and informal learning experiences, many students and adults suffer math anxiety. One individual who has worked to cure ‘math-phobia’ through her contributions to formal and informal STEM education is Tracey Wright, Senior Researcher and Developer at TERC (Technical Education Research Centers). In addition to a BA in Child Development and K-3 Teaching Certificate from Tufts University, Wright holds an MEd in Curriculum and Instruction from Lesley University. She initially entered Tufts thinking she would be a math major, but was turned off by the instructional approach of the math department. She discovered the developmental psychology department with its focus on learning, and has since devoted her career to improving math and science education around the country. We recently spoke with Tracey Wright about her many efforts to engage learners with math in informal learning environments.

How did you first become interested in engaging learners with math through informal experiences and settings?

I first became interested in engaging learners with math through informal experiences when my research and curriculum work on the Mathematics of Change with Ricardo Nemirovsky led to an opportunity to collaborate with J. Newlin at the Science Museum of Minnesota. The NSF-based Handling Calculus project began and I was hooked. Museum educators are so creative and less constrained by school testing, and are open to trying innovative ways of educating learners of all ages. We were interested in how we could broaden people’s views about what “counts“ as math learning, and we saw the potential for creating interesting math experiences that could be drawn upon as students encounter school mathematics.

Tracey Wright

Are there particular types of activities or exhibits that are well-suited to be “mathematized”?

Anything can be mathematized, but in the Math Momentum in Science Centers project we focused on data, measurement and algebra. Teachers often don’t have enough time to dedicate to data and measurement. In the Math in Zoos and Aquariums project we focused on logic, measurement and data. (Data is a nice bridge between math and science.) In the MathCore project we focused on ratio and proportion. All of these are areas where students struggle, and if they don’t understand these concepts, they never get past a certain level of school mathematics. Bob Moses, founder of the Algebra Project, talks about algebraic knowledge as power. We need in particular to reach underserved students in both in and out of school settings. At TERC we are interested in gathering people from the informal math worlds and the Making/Tinkering communities. These are groups that don’t typically interact, but share a lot of the same interests. Over the last decade there has been a proliferation of out-of-school environments that foster building, making, tinkering, and design activities, creating an unprecedented opportunity to engage a wide range of participants in mathematics that is both purposeful and powerful. Unfortunately, this opportunity has been almost universally unleveraged. To address this gap, we hope to collaboratively generate approaches to integrate mathematics in making and design environments and programs.

What/where are your current favorite informal math learning settings?

The Math Core project developed Math Moves, which involves a set of open-ended math exhibits that use body motion to engage children and their families in learning experiences with ratio and proportion over multiple museum visits. It was developed by a partnership of four science museums and two research institutions. The set of exhibits is in: Explora in Albuquerque, NM; the Museum of Life + Science in Durham, NC; the Museum of Science in Boston, MA; and the Science Museum of Minnesota in Saint Paul. These are some of my favorite museums. The project will conduct an evaluation study of how effectively the exhibits support learning by repeat visitors over three years. A research study on embodied mathematics cognition also advances the field of informal science learning and math education. Interacting with these exhibits through physical activity supports facility with proportional reasoning, an important skill children need for success with algebra. The open-ended quality engages all visitors in learning at different levels across repeat visits. Some of my other favorites include Design Zone(Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) and Geometry Playground(Exploratorium) because they not only involve mathematical thinking, but they also use full body motion at times to accomplish this. I’ve always wanted to see the Museum of Mathematics in NYC, the first of its kind in the US.

What have you learned from your work in studying “embodied math”?

Kinesthetic learning is the idea of learning while being engaged in a physical activity (as opposed to watching a demonstration). There you can achieve realizations through doing something. Through embodied math, you can reach learners who typically do not do well in math, yet have an intuitive sense of important math concepts(such as rhythm) that can be accessed and applied given the right tools and teaching techniques. Learners may not yet be able to articulate what they know in a formal sense, but that does not mean they don’t know or understand something fundamentally mathematical in a qualitative way. As researchers and practitioners we need to learn how to read learners’ gestures and movement better. We need to broaden people’s views of what mathematics is or could be. I think it’s great that there are more projects involving STEAM, not just STEM, which involves working in the Arts(in general, including dance/body motion).

Is there useful literature that you would recommend to practitioners who are designing these types of experiences and settings?
Are there particularly fruitful areas that you see for future research on informal math learning settings and experiences?

We need to figure out better ways to understand visitor learning in out of school settings, such as science museums, zoos and aquaria, botanical gardens, national parks, etc. We need to collect video examples; a library where we see examples of learners actively engaged in mathematical activities in informal settings. Math phobia is also a problem in this country. How can we help visitors think of themselves more positively as mathematical thinkers?

How do you think the formal and informal realms currently are and could be more complementary in math education?

There has begun to be more crossover between the formal and informal worlds of mathematics learning. For example, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference in Boston this year just had a presentation on informal math learning. And there’s a Teaching Children Mathematics article on Data Literacy in Zoos and Aquariums. There are more curriculum guides on museum websites and research on creating more substantive Math Field trips. (For example: Molly Louise Kelton’s pending dissertation, Math on the Move: A Video-Based Study of School Field Trips to a Mathematics Exhibition) Lots of museums (math and otherwise) are paying attention to state standards in order to justify field trips. More integration between these 2 realms especially in mathematics would support student learning greatly. In the Math Momentum and Science Centers book, we write about things that each world brings to the other. For example: science centers connect math to science, providing a context for math, making it come alive.

Tracey is currently involved in the Zoo and Aquarium Action Research Collaborative, an NSF-funded project involving four zoos, two aquariums, and informal educators from TERC and Oregon State. The ZAARC project is investigating how action research efforts can be implemented in informal science settings(particularly zoos and aquariums) and in what ways it can impact both individual practitioners and institutions. It grew out of the Math in Zoos and Aquariums(MIZA) project, mentioned above and catalogued in our collection. For more information, see our 2012 Spotlight on ZAARC. If you’re interested in more mathematics-related projects, evaluations or research, we currently have 1,896 resources available on informalscience.org for you to explore.