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Could math method for students with visual impairments help others?

Rice, Auburn University at Montgomery hope to prove ‘process-driven’ techniques will enhance STEM education for all

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Jordan Price, left, and Logan Prickett, undergraduate student researchers at Auburn University at Montgomery, are helping to develop Process-Driven Math, a method to help students with visual impairments learn advanced mathematics. (Credit: Auburn University at Montgomery)

HOUSTON – A method developed to help students who are blind or have visual impairments learn algebra and other advanced mathematics is being studied by Rice University and Auburn University at Montgomery (AUM) to determine whether that approach can improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for all students.

The National Science Foundation (NSF)-backed project called “Solving Problems of Mathematics Accessibility With Process-Driven Math” is a collaborative effort by the two institutions.

Rice’s educational researchers will evaluate the “innovative, evidence-based method of mathematics instruction and assessment” called Process-Driven Math (PDM) developed at AUM, which also scored an NSF grant for its part of the project.

“We hope to mainstream the conversation about equity in education for students with disabilities with a great push for more research-to-practice in this area,” said principal investigator Yvette Pearson Weatherton, associate dean for accreditation and assessment at Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering and a former NSF program director. “We also believe PDM offers a unique way for educators to improve classroom instruction and the assessment of student learning across the board.”

“This grant from the NSF supports Auburn University at Montgomery’s pursuit of equity and innovation in education,” said AUM Chancellor Carl Stockton. “And we are pleased to have such an esteemed research partner as Rice University in our efforts toward accessible STEM education.”

PDM is an audio-based method through which instructors work one-on-one with students to make the complex syntax of high-level mathematics more accessible. It has been adapted for sighted students with a specific focus to address needs of learners with dyslexia, dyscalculia (difficulty in learning or comprehending mathematics) and auditory or visual processing disorders.

PDM breaks the study of mathematics into “chunks” that work within the limitations of cognitive load and working memory that affect everyone, Pearson Weatherton said.

“Research shows that our working memory can only process about five to nine pieces, or ‘chunks,’ of information at a time,” she said. “In the context of this project, PDM involves the reduction of complex mathematical expressions that may contain dozens of numbers, variables and symbols into manageable chunks of information to reduce the cognitive load on the learner.”

Pearson Weatherton said students with and without disabilities encounter obstacles in learning mathematics, and the principles of “universal design for learning” upon which PDM is based include multiple means of representation, action and expression. The new initiative’s goal is to optimize learning for the diversity of students in any given group.

“Our mixed-methods study is designed to test how PDM impacts such learner outcomes as self-efficacy, number and types of errors made when solving problems and experiences with and perceptions of mathematics education,” she said. “To the extent possible, we will compare results for students with and without disabilities. We believe PDM holds great promise for all learners.”

The research will initially focus on approximately 300 students and seven educators using PDM in algebra courses at four post-secondary institutions in Alabama and state schools for the blind in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. Rice’s part will be to gather evidence about how well PDM works and how it could be scaled up to serve not only algebra students but also those studying college-level calculus and other high-level mathematics.

The development of Process-Driven Math at AUM was a cooperative effort between Ann Gulley and two undergraduate student researchers, Logan Prickett and Jordan Price. Matthew Ragland, AUM’s associate provost for graduate studies and faculty services, is principal investigator there, and Joshua Eyler, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, is co-principal investigator at Rice.

The initiative began as “The Logan Project” at AUM when Prickett, who was almost completely blind and had severely limited mobility and a voice no louder than a whisper, began his undergraduate career there. Because of his unique cohort of disabilities, typical low-vision tools were not adequate for Prickett to demonstrate his capability in math. AUM’s Learning Center partnered with him to address his needs and – by extension – help others in similar situations.

Despite Prickett’s disabilities, the result of a reaction to an MRI contrast agent that left him in a coma for 12 days, the psychology student has participated in skydiving, fishing, whitewater rafting and hunting. He is still part of the team developing PDM for students without adequate training or access to Nemeth Code, the math equivalent of Braille.

“Having a gifted researcher who is blind on the development team of The Logan Project was critical for the development of this mathematics tool,” Gulley said. “A primary focus of this next phase of the research is to hear more voices of our end-users to both validate and improve Process-Driven Math.

“The value of the collaboration between Rice and AUM is found in the sense of urgency we share about the state of mathematics accessibility and equity in education,” she said. “As a team, we learn, work and solve problems collectively better than we do when working alone. We are passionate about the students whose lives we touch, and working together encourages us to work harder.”