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MVMs: Magic in math classroom

Dr. Adam Feldhaus, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa, has always felt that manipulative technology for mathematics education is currently way too expensive for most elementary schools.
“Classroom sets of physical manipulatives are expensive while most computer-based virtual manipulatives are either non-intuitive or based on dated technology or locked behind publishing deals or some combination thereof,” he says.
These manipulatives are a powerful learning tool for students to learn mathematics, especially at the elementary level, he adds.
The challenge, thus, is to develop a technology that is not just affordable but also engaging and accessible for elementary students.
That is exactly what Dr. Feldhaus and Dr. Sarah Diesburg, an assistant professor of computer science at UNI, have been working on for the past couple of years.
“We wanted to create a modern manipulative platform that relies on inputs that most students are familiar with (i.e. touchscreens), can be widely available, and are cost-effective for schools on a limited budget,” Dr. Feldhaus says.
It all began on the sidelines of a university program, with Dr. Feldhaus sharing his thoughts on manipulative technology for elementary mathematics with Dr. Diesburg.
This initial exchange of ideas led to a series of brainstorming sessions, eventually crystalizing into a grant proposal towards developing Motion Virtual Manipulatives (MVMs). The project was approved in 2015.
Dr. Diesburg and Dr. Feldhaus say that the MVMs will not just be an effective tool for teaching core mathematical concepts in the elementary classroom but also potentially reach students who do not respond to typical mathematics instruction.
The manipulatives will function in an environment built on Ubi Interactive, a hardware plus software solution that turns any surface into a touch screen.
“Our technology can turn any blank wall into a virtual touch screen that functions similarly to the way modern touch screens work (similar to an iPad),” explains Dr. Diesburg. “We have built a suite of mathematics manipulatives into that technology, as well as a method to ‘play back’ specific actions for evaluation.”
“We would like to learn if our platform is comparable to current technology solutions as well as how students use our touch-screen user interface,” she says.
Moreover, a data-collection tool has been built in that will allow the researchers to “improve the software and answer questions about the mathematical thinking of the students,” she adds.
Dr. Feldhaus says the MVMs could be used daily in the elementary school classroom.
“This toolset is highly expandable, and we would like to work to create something that is useful for multiple concepts in the mathematics classroom,” he adds.
Although the project began with the objective of developing an affordable manipulative technology for elementary mathematics classroom, the two UNI professors plan to continually work on the manipulatives, and enhance and expand their utility.
“First, we would like to grow our suite of available manipulatives to be something more complete for use in K-8 classrooms,” says Dr. Feldhaus. “Beyond that, we have been approached by other education researchers who see applications of our software to high school math, and also to other subjects such as literacy, science, and computer programming.”
The involvement of undergraduate students has been an important aspect of the research project.
“It has been great!” Dr. Diesburg says. “Undergraduate researchers built the software for our research and helped us throughout the entire design process.”
On one occasion at least, the help may not have been intended as such.
“We ran into the perfect training tool for our platform by accident,” she recalls. “We were working on developing complex training exercises when one of us put on the game Angry Birds for a break. It turns out this game is a fabulous way to train students how to point, drag and perform other gestures in our environment!”
The experience has also been inspirational for many undergraduate students.
“After working with us, many have decided that they would like to pursue graduate school,” Dr. Feldhaus says. “One specific undergraduate alumni, Cole Boudreau, is now successfully enrolled in graduate school at the University of Toronto.”

Posted: 02-08-17

For the love of physics

When he was a little boy, Byron Fritch would have a lot of questions in his mind about everyday occurrences: How does a bird fly? How does a suspension bridge bear the weight of so many cars? Then, as he grew older, he found out that physics and mathematics had answers to most of these questions and more. He has known since that physics is what he wants to study. So, once he completed high school, the question was not what but where to study.
Byron chose the University of Northern Iowa, among other reasons, for the size of its campus. “The campus is just big enough to meet new people every day, if you so desired, but small enough to get to know your professors,” he says.
Knowing the professors has been a part of his “wonderful experience” at UNI. “The professors here care about you as an individual,” he says. “I can walk into their office and ask questions if I don’t understand something in class.”
That helps because undergraduate coursework is difficult.
“If a non-physics major were to take an upper-level physics class, they would probably say that the coursework is pretty challenging,” he says.
However, difficulty is something Byron looks forward to. “I like being challenged and the physics courses are a perfect combination for me,” he adds.
He singles out Dr. Paul Shand’s Modern Physics class as his most favorite. “Modern Physics essentially covers every major physics discovery in the 20th century,” he says.
“The topics range from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to the Schrodinger Equation,” he adds. “I find these topics so interesting because it corrects some of the huge failures in Newtonian physics.”
Another high point has been the research with nanocellulose aerogel under the supervision of Dr. Tim Kidd.
“This material is very lightweight with an extremely low density,” Byron explains. “Being composed of nanocellulose allows the material to be relatively non-reactive but safe for humans.”
“We are currently in the process of trying to use this material to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen,” he continues. “If we find that this works, we can then collect hydrogen and use it as a renewable fuel.”
Byron wants to go on and get a Ph.D. in physics. He also wants to raise awareness among the general populace about the need for scientific research.
“We are at a critical point,” he says. “The need for scientific research is being increasingly questioned in society. It is important that people understand the positive impacts scientific research has had on humanity and do not devalue and deny results that have been repeatedly proved.”
Byron has recently taken interest in long-distance running.
“Running is not something that I did in high school,” he admits. “But I have run a half and a full marathon since starting college. I am not signed up for any right now but will surely be finishing more of those in the future.”
Besides being the vice-president of the UNI Physics Club, Byron is also a Student Admissions Ambassador.
“This allows me to connect with high school students interested to enroll in UNI,” he says. “I share with these prospective students the story of my college life and the great things that UNI has to offer.”
To prospective STEM students, his advice is: “Don’t be in it for the job outlook or the possible salary after graduation. Decide to be a STEM major because you enjoy learning about it and how it applies to the world around you.”
“Classes are going to be difficult,” he warns. “Do not be afraid to reach out to classmates and professors for help when you need it.”
“Just because I say it will be difficult does not mean you should shy away from it,” he adds. “The most important thing is to do something that you enjoy.” 

Posted: 01-30-17

Regents Center for Early Developmental Education

Students participating in Ramps and Pathways at CEESTEM

[This story is re-posted to mark the selection of the Ramps and Pathways Program of the Regents Center for Early Developmental Education as a Scale-Up.]
Now that you are familiar with Dr. Beth VanMeeteren, whose story we featured on Wednesday, let’s take a look at early childhood resources at UNI. The Regents Center for Early Developmental Education and CEE STEM are full of opportunities and resources for UNI students and Iowa educators. The Regents’ Center offers high quality professional development to childcare providers, child development center directors, preschool educators and directors, and K-3 teachers and administrators. Topics within professional development include literacy, social development and conflict resolution, chemistry through cooking, physics, STEM, and mathematical development.
Beth VanMeeteren, Director of the Early Childhood Center, discussed a few resources that the Early Childhood Center provides. The first resource is Professional Development, “Professional development has been popular throughout the state of Iowa and Midwest as well as throughout many other states such as California, Utah, Ohio, Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington DC, Alabama, and Alaska as well as China, Japan, Brazil, and Mexico. The Regents’ Center is becoming well-renowned for its professional development and curriculum for early childhood STEM education.”
The second resource Beth discussed is the CEE STEM Center as a physical space for students and teachers to work and learn in. “There are many universities and colleges that list STEM centers on their website, but exist in name only or are represented by a one-occupant office. Very few devote an actual physical space with materials for a STEM center where teachers and preservice teachers can go to work with materials and learn how to be quality STEM educators. The Regents’ Center space offers a conference room for faculty meetings, staff development, or curriculum development. We also have the beginnings of a teacher maker space where educators are encouraged to browse and explore materials, and a professional library to design curricula specific to student needs. We have examples of math games for teachers and UNI teacher education students to peruse and consider for classroom and instructional use.”
The Ramps and Pathways program is a specific program available to in-service and preservice teachers who want to engage their younger students in STEM. “Ramps and Pathways is truly a STEM curriculum. As children Engineer and build their own Technology of ramp systems, they engage in mathematics (spatial thinking, seriation, number, geometry…) and encounter the laws of physics as they try to move an object in a specific way (science). In addition, they observe properties of objects (wood, glass, metal, plastic, round, cylinder, light, heavy etc.) and how those properties affect movement.”
This program can help teachers learn how to engage children in engineering rather than teaching children about engineering, “Ramps and Pathways is an extraordinary way to engage children in engineering rather than teaching children about engineering. I’ve rarely had to provide challenges to children as they pose their own problems. I have photos of a child that designed a structure that moved a marble 39 feet in a 3x3 foot square of space! Schools that resist the impulse to focus only on what the state is testing and encourage their pre-kindergarten – second grade teachers to include STEM throughout their day can allow their students a strong start that will last by providing them with a robust, well-rounded, and rich curriculum such as Ramps and Pathways.”
Check these programs out for yourself and see how they can assist you throughout your education at UNI.

Posted: 01-24-17

Looking back, looking forward

Fall 2016 was a lot of fun, with a lot of STEM events across the UNI campus and beyond. The Semester End Special puts together a few happy memories in frames. For those of you, who may not have been there at these events, good news. A number of events are lined up for Spring 2017. Happy holidays!!!

Posted: 12-13-16

Thinking outside the box

Haley Osborn has always known that she wants to be a teacher. Until recently, though, she was in a dilemma over what she wanted to teach.
“I was pushed towards mathematics when I was in high school,” Haley recalls. “When I came to UNI, I was originally a Math Education major.”
However, after taking a few courses in Math Education, she started to reconsider her plans. “I realized it wasn’t for me,” she says.
So, she started weighing her options and, courtesy of UNI, she had quite a few. “I settled for All Science Teaching as my best option,” she says.
UNI has provided Haley with “an amazing experience.” She was drawn to UNI initially because of the reputation of the College of Education. On her first visit, she found out that there was more to UNI than its academic reputation.
“I loved the sense of community that everyone on the campus shared,” she recalls.
Once the classes began, she loved UNI even more. “The professors are so willing to help in every way that they possibly can,” she says. “And I have made so many friends that will last me a lifetime.”
It’s not been all fun, though.
“The undergraduate coursework has been just that: work,” Haley says. “Most science classes are hard but, if you put in the time and effort, and get help from the professors, you will do well.”
Putting in the time has not been a problem for her in anyway. “I find science so interesting that it is easy for me to want to put in the time,” she explains.
However, her most favorite class so far, interestingly, has not been on science.
“Although ‘Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners’ with Deborah Gallagher is not a science class, it often pushed me to think outside the box and how I could do something unconventionally or differently to help students,” she says. “This thought can also be applied to many science subjects in the field and in the classroom.”
Haley plans to teach in Iowa for at least five years after she graduates from UNI. “I will then see where teaching takes me.”
At present, though, she finds very little time between her classes and studies, and the different work that she is involved in.
“I am part of the TC/TK security team, and also the property manager for my sorority, Alpha Delta Pi,” she says. “I also work part-time at Maurice’s, a women’s clothing store.”
She also volunteers at Ronald McDonald House Charities through her sorority and the STEM Ambassadors program.
Haley loves being a STEM Ambassador.
“My friend joined last year and told me about it,” she says. “I have loved every moment since I joined. I love working with kids of any age and seeing them excited about learning and getting to share my experiences as a student with others.”
So, free time is not something that comes by too often but when it does, she loves to spend it with friends and family.
Haley feels very strongly about STEM and her advice to would-be STEM majors is very simple: “Go for it.”
“Never think that you are not good enough or not smart enough for a field that you want to go into,” she says. “School is going to be hard but if you put in the work, it is worthwhile in the end.”

Mir Ashfaquzzaman, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 12-06-16


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