KATE Project Team Designs Virtual Learning Environment for Pre-Service Math Teachers

Students using Second Life in the KATE project

Written by: CEHD Communications Staff
Post date: April 07, 2014

The K-12 learning landscape is constantly changing. To keep pace with these changes, many teachers are searching for innovative ways to keep students engaged. And keeping their attention is only part of the equation in designing effective lessons.

Mathematics teachers may find it particularly challenging to facilitate instruction that keep students engaged and ensures a successful curriculum. These teachers need the tools and resources to teach math in an immersive and inclusive environment and successfully lead a classroom full of diverse learners.  

With increased attention on improving low national math achievement for students in grades K-12, many math teachers are recognizing the value of teacher preparation. The National Research Council (NRC) report “Monitoring Progress Toward Successful K-12 STEM Education” also emphasizes that decisions about improving STEM education requires research and data about the content and quality of the curriculum, teachers’ content knowledge and the use of instructional practices.

To address these concerns and better prepare pre-service math teachers, an interdisciplinary team of professors in the College of Education and Human Development initiated the Knowledge for Algebra Teaching for Equity (KATE) Project in 2010 with funding from the National Science Foundation. The KATE research team includes Gerald Kulm, Trina Davis, Donald Allen, Kathryn McKenzie and Chance Lewis. The project enriches STEM teacher education by using emergent technology to provide early teaching experiences in a simulated classroom environment.

The project's goal is to help pre-service, middle school mathematics teachers design, implement and critically evaluate lessons that address topics in algebra and equity. The equity component focuses on developing mathematical knowledge for teaching algebra and the ability to address the challenges of teaching a diverse student population. To learn more about the KATE Project visit http://kate.tamu.edu.

Davis is an assistant mathematics education professor in the college and serves as co-principal investigator for the KATE Project. Since the project’s inception in 2010, she has designed and taught the Second Life® class sessions in course the MASC 351 course for the KATE Project.

“With the KATE Project we focus specifically on problem solving in algebra for equity, in a highly interactive and engaging learning environment,” said Davis. “We do this by using our Second Life® classroom, which enables us to help guide pre-service teachers through practice teaching simulations with middle school student avatars.”

Second Life® is an online 3D virtual world typically used by commercial users to socialize, connect and create using avatars and designed communities.  However, there are few virtual classrooms configured in Second Life®, especially those that focus on math learning. Davis worked with her design team to go one step further and advance the programming and scripting by designing a virtual online teaching environment within Second Life® called the KATE Virtual Lab Classroom on Glasscock Island. They created a classroom to specifically support features that allow pre-service teachers to practice teaching lessons and classroom instruction strategies.  Inside the virtual classroom are tools such as easels, audio options and media screens that display content from interactive SMART Boards.

For example, pre-service teachers enrolled in MASC 351 implement and actually work out math problems on a Smart Podium that appears in real time in the 3D KATE classroom in Second Life®. Students in the redesigned course receive an orientation of how to use Second Life®, then set up a teacher avatar to use for the remainder of the course.  

After orientation, pre-service teachers participate in six class sessions where they simulate teaching math using lessons they created. In the virtual classroom, students practice teaching to middle school student avatars. Some avatars are scripted agents that computer programs control, while role-playing graduate students control the remaining avatars.

The graduate students are team members of the KATE Project conducting research and enacting varying learning skills to challenge teacher avatars. Questions appear on a gesture menu to indicate to teacher avatars the student’s level of understanding. This training prepares pre-service teachers to remain poised in front of the class to ensure their lessons are inclusive and responsive in nature.  By the end of the course, pre-service teachers are typically able to teach a full classroom of student avatars.

“The KATE classroom in Second Life® provides a unique environment for pre-service teachers to use emerging technologies to design, deliver and assess problem solving activities,” said Davis. "For example, by integrating conceptual schemes that address culturally relevant or situated learning, pre-service teachers are better able to engage diverse students in learning algebra."

Davis reflects that when pre-service teachers use situated learning, it provides an instructional context that allows students to have concrete hands-on experiences. Math learning is built on realistic, open-ended and culturally relevant problems that students solve using a variety of skills.

Pre-service teachers can practice communicating in front of a small group of students conducting math tutoring by using their teacher avatars to simulate their actions in Second Life®. These simulations make it possible for pre-service teachers to participate in a more intensive and focused practice as they address the math misconceptions of middle school student avatars.

The KATE Project Virtual Lab Classroom represents a diverse learning environment with student avatars from different backgrounds and learning capabilities to demonstrate what a broad sense of equity looks like in a classroom.

One unique space within the KATE virtual classroom is a music-math park that integrates music learning and math. Students compose songs using a virtual piano as they engage in related problem-solving activities, allowing teacher and student avatars to interact. For pre-service teachers, these hands-on activities serve as reminders that integrated lessons may engage students interested in a variety of subjects, like music or the performing arts.

Davis is excited about the future of the KATE Project and cites the importance for implementing more innovative technology resources to try and close the math achievement gap for K-12 students. “To address achievement gaps in mathematics, I think we need to continue to look for new ways to prepare pre-service teachers. As long as we continue to see areas of improvement in math achievement, there is a need to research new and emerging approaches.”

For more information contact Trina Davis at trinadavis@tamu.edu, 979-845-8384 or Chauncey Cox at coxch@education.tamu.edu or 979-845-1823.