University of Richmond assistant professor of psychology David Landy received a $1.12 million U.S. Department of Education grant in March. The grant will fund his project, "Learning the Visual Structure of Algebra through Dynamic Interactions with Notation."
Landy's research involves using an iPad application called Algebra Touch to understand how people learn mathematics. Landy said his belief right now was that when you were good at math, you picked up on an object-focused way of thinking, which was not taught explicitly. Using Algebra Touch, Landy said it was hoped he could teach this way of thinking explicitly so that kids who did not pick it up on their own could see mathematics in that way.
"The big idea of the grant is really to look at whether we can take this idea about how mathematics is understood and turn it into something that gets done in the classroom," he said.
The iPad application currently does not allow students to get an answer wrong. Landy said one of the first focuses would be on whether people learned how to do the equations correctly because they saw how to do them or whether they missed crucial parts of the process because the computer did it for them.
Students can learn by going through problems on the iPad - for example, by tapping on a plus sign, the application will add for you, and you can cancel out terms by drawing a line through them. Students can also put their own equations into the application by either using what Landy called an "equation editor" or by using a computer to make "problem lists." A new aspect of the application is distribution and factoring, Landy said.
Landy's research is a long-distance collaboration with Robert Goldstone, a psychology professor at Indiana University in Bloomington and developer Sean Berry, who lives in Seattle. Goldstone ran the lab that Landy worked in when he was a graduate student at Indiana University. Goldstone had provided him with training when he needed it, ideas and material resources.
"He pulled me into this research area that I would not have otherwise have come into," Goldstone said.
Goldstone said that Landy was the most brilliant graduate student he had ever had and that he had learned a wealth of information from him.
"[Landy] is extremely self-guided and independent and basically the only thing I had to do was give him a key to the lab and he was off running," Goldstone said.
Landy said Berry contributed to the research as primary developer of the iPad application. He said when he had started working on the main idea for the research, he found online that Berry had been working on something similar, had contacted him and since then they had been working together.
Landy said that the grant process had been very in-depth and that he had not thought that he would receive the grant.
Writing the grant application made him specify what he was planning for the future, he said.
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Landy said, "I think what the grant application process afforded me was an opportunity to sit back and think, 'All right, what really matters, and what really matters out of what I've done so far that I can extend?'"
A large part of the grant will go to Berry for software development, and it will also pay for three Richmond undergraduates to work with Landy on the research this summer.
Taylyn Hulse, a sophomore psychology major who will do research with Landy this summer, said she was especially excited to work on the project because it was grounded in something important.
Senior psychology major Ryan Smout will also be working on the research. Smout said a lot of psychology research was not instantly practical, but this project was more direct.
"I think that's cool that we can actually explore something that can be that practical," Smout said.
The grant will also fund the development of lesson plans to incorporate the iPad into the classroom, Landy said. Tricia Stohr-Hunt, a Richmond education professor, will consult on the development of these plans.
The grant will also allow the collaborators to meet in person for a week once a year, which Landy said was a relief from the "manageable struggle" of long-distance collaborating.
"I think right now mathematics is extremely counter-intuitive and I don't think that's intrinsic to math, I don't think that's part of mathematics," Landy said. "I think that's how we know how to teach it."
Contact reporter Michelle Guerrere at firstname.lastname@example.org
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