Grantee Spotlight: SunBay Middle School Digital Mathematics Program

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What is your i3 project trying to achieve, and what are the major components of the project?

The goal of the Validating the SunBay Middle School Digital Mathematics Program i3 project (a 2013 validation grant) is to improve and increase middle school math students’ deep conceptual understanding of big and important ideas in mathematics. SunBay Math™ introduces the use of software that provides dynamic representations of key mathematics concepts. Students first learn by exploring and interacting with the technology-based tools during activities that show real-world examples of key mathematical concepts. They learn the formal vocabulary after manipulating the software and engaging in classroom conversations about the math topics. The dynamic representations can offer expanded opportunities for English learner (EL) students to engage and learn the mathematics content. The project is also beginning to investigate how to best engage EL students in the learning activities, prompted in part by the fact that many students in the participating districts are ELs and in part by the expectation that interacting directly with dynamic mathematical representations can provide ELs with an alternate way of accessing and expressing themselves that is not based solely on text-based communication.

SunBay Math facilitates students’ engaging in “productive struggle” through a cycle of Predict, Check, and Explain. Students are asked to Predict how a representation will impact the outcome of a simulation, Check if the outcome was consistent with their prediction, and Explain how the prediction relates to the outcome: the “struggle” occurs when students are expected to make sense of mathematical situations in which their predictions are not borne out by the simulation. It is important to allow the students to engage in this struggle and engage them in the mathematical thinking, as it is through this process that they come to appreciate the underlying mathematical concepts.

Major components of the project include:

  • Curriculum materials for two units in each of 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. Each unit addresses a key mathematical concept for the grade level. The mathematical concept selected is one that is important for moving forward in understanding advanced math and is usually an idea that has been difficult to teach and learn using traditional methods.
  • Technology-based materials. The SunBay software, weaved through the curricular materials, provides linked mathematical representations and simulations of real-world situations. Students explore and experience what happens to the simulation when they make changes to the representations. For instance, to learn about slope students are asked to control the speed of runners by manipulating a graph. As part of this experience, students are asked questions about the speed of the runners. Students come to learn that this method of determining speed corresponds to the mathematical concept of slope. Importantly, they do not first learn slope by memorizing formulas: instead, this mathematical concept is meaningful to students as they first use it to describe a real-world phenomenon.
  • Teacher professional development (PD) is a core part of the project. Teachers engage in PD sessions before they use the units and then have access to ongoing in-person coaching through the year. The PD and materials are designed to work with different teaching styles. The project has used a randomized controlled trial in two of its partner districts in Broward County Public Schools (FL) and the School District of Palm Beach County (FL) and is engaged in a design study in the School District of Manatee County (FL).

What has gone well with implementation, and what has been challenging so far?

The partnership with the districts in conducting the project has gone well. The districts have found the program to be successful in that they see the math instruction being shaped in ways that they want to see in their math courses. The districts also see that the SunBay classes are providing a higher level of cognitive demand and are engaging students in mathematical work more than is the case in traditional math classes. Now that the experimental years are complete, the two RCT partner districts, Broward County Public Schools and the School District of Palm Beach County, are offering the SunBay materials and PD to all of their teachers, and the SunBay materials are on both of the districts’ official list of recommended mathematics curricula for middle school students.

One of the key challenges the projects has faced is that many teachers are not comfortable with the notion of allowing students to engage in a “productive struggle” as they work through the content in the simulations. They are concerned in particular that the task and materials may be too difficult for their lower-achieving students or their EL students. In response we have been working on a set of PD materials that show teachers how to productively use the SunBay materials with all their students.

Your project was not initially designed for ELs; in what ways did you have to adjust or adapt to meet the needs of ELs?

The project serves classrooms that include EL students. Initially, there were requests from some teachers that the materials be translated for ELs. The project gave a lot of thought and attention to these requests and ultimately decided to translate short sections that set up the context for the dynamic representations. This would ensure that students have a good grasp of the real-world phenomenon that is the context of the investigations. However, there was an intentional decision to not provide translations for the materials that present the formal mathematical language for the concepts. For example, the definitions of key terms such as slope and equivalent ratios are not translated. This is based on the rationale that all the students are learning new academic vocabulary, and providing the Spanish language word for mathematical slope, for instance, would be of little additional benefit to ELs (and perhaps could be detrimental to math instruction because teachers might assume that translations are more of a scaffold than the really are).

There are more opportunities for ELs to engage because they are able to express themselves mathematically through interaction with the materials. To further explore this, the project has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to explore whether ELs use these materials differently than do non-ELs. The project team is studying how EL students work with the dynamic representation tools to understand more about their learning processes with these tools.

What are you learning? Are there any lessons learned at this point that you can share? Are any of these lessons learned specific to EL students?

One of the most important lessons learned is the importance of having buy-in from all levels of the project. Even in the early stages of the proposal, there was buy-in at high levels of the districts. By engaging with the districts from the beginning, the project staff found out what the district was grappling with and were better able to understand the district’s context. This helped to shape the project to be more consistent with existing district initiatives. One aspect the project would like to incorporate more as it moves toward a scalable and sustainable model is to more fully engage the principals.

Another important lesson was the value of input from the field and to make sure to institute ways for the teachers to provide some feedback on challenges and/or suggest modifications to the program. The project had a one-year pilot implementation, and during this year, teachers gave a lot of feedback. The project used their input to make significant modifications. This created buy-in because teachers recognized that their input was actually being heard and used, and they appreciated that they had input into the final materials. This is not to say that all teacher feedback was incorporated, as there were some non-negotiables for the project, such as introducing the concept names only after the students have had an opportunity to work with the simulations at the start of the unit lessons.

One concern that the project has been focused on this past summer is that for many teachers, while they may agree with the philosophy of the materials and find them useful in many cases, they still need additional support for using these with some of their student populations. The project is working to address some of the concerns that teachers have about ELs and low-achieving students being able to engage with the math concepts presented through the lessons. SunBay has been working with the districts on a “SunBay for All” set of PD modules that have specific research-based “lessons learned” and how to apply those lessons to SunBay. Examples include differentiating among students, strategies to support ELs (such as multi-modal presentation of contexts/questions, focusing on concepts before vocabulary), or engaging students in the type of mathematical discourse required for mathematical practice. Districts have been very receptive toward this, and some of the modules have been used in early pilot form.

What steps have you taken toward sustainability of the grant in the districts that are currently using the SunBay model? What steps have you taken toward scaling the grant?

To sustain the work within the districts, the materials will be offered to all teachers in two out of the three districts. The University of Florida has set up a teacher leaders program in the district, and they are aiming for one teacher at each school to be a “SunBay leader.” These teacher leaders will receive special PD and incentives to be the onsite person to provide additional support to other teachers within their schools. The project is also working to build internal district capacity through the use of district-hired PD facilitators and coaches and is working with the districts on developing pacing guides to help ensure that the math classes are on track with the district curriculum, to clarify what materials they are substituting for SunBay, and to make sure PD is aligned during the year.

In terms of scaling beyond the districts, the project is working with its software developer, Simulation Curriculum Corporation (SCC), to look into licensing models that would enable other districts to use the materials. The project encourages interested districts or potential partners to contact them about how SunBay can be used beyond this research project.

The project is also presenting at key conferences. For instance, at the FCTM 2016 conference Oct 20-22 there will be three SunBay Math-based presentations, each run by a district or university partner. If you are attending FCTM, look for a SunBay session—there is one each day!