Grace Mabie ’19 and Elena Teaford ’17 paired up last spring to make a game that helps young children learn math. With several two-colored spinners and a game board with moveable parts, players ages 5-7 can use their natural intuition about proportions to deepen their understanding of fractions.
The game was the pair’s final project for a psychology course called Mathematical Development. The course, taught by visiting professor Eliza Congdon, addressed questions about innate mathematical abilities and educational deficiencies. At the heart of the course were the questions: What mathematical skills are we born with, how do we learn new ones, and how can teachers build on what their students already know in order to teach math more successfully?
“Most schools teach fractions before they teach proportions or probability, and many children struggle to understand fractions,” says Mabie, a double major in math and psychology. “But babies have a natural understanding of proportions that builds as they get older. Our game starts there, and leads up to fractions.”
To play the game, two players start out with a spinner that is half blue and half red. If the spinner lands on red, the red player slides the red and blue column inside the game board to reveal a red segment. After five turns, the person with the least color showing on the game board chooses a new spinner. That’s when things get interesting.
“Intuitively, a kid who sees a spinner that is three-quarters red and one-quarter blue knows that the chances are higher they’ll land on red,” says Teaford, a math major who plans to teach high school math in the fall. “If the kid playing for red is losing, she will choose that spinner for the next round, improving her chances.”
For the course, Congdon’s students read articles from neuroscience, cognitive science, education and psychology to understand how elementary school students can bridge the gap between the informal mathematical intuition they’re born with and the formal math they are taught. For their final projects, the students worked individually or in pairs to create games targeting skills including angles, counting and measurement.
Congdon says she was impressed with Mabie and Teaford’s game because each stage of it was informed by the studies they read during the semester. “The game is both simple and informative, and will continue to work well as kids gain more skills,” she says.
Both Mabie and Teaford were thankful to have the opportunity to take a course that combined their interests in math and psychology. “Our conversations in class always circled back to the broader implications the research has on education,” says Mabie. “We always asked how we can use these theories to change how we teach and make kids more comfortable learning math.”
That is what the students hope their game will do.