Utah makes an $8.5 million bet on tech for math

More than 5,500 students assessed before, during and after they used dozens of learning programs.

January 30, 2014 | Salt Lake City, UT – Seventh-grader Michael Hernandez is loving the new ThinkThroughMath software that his math teacher in Logan uses once a week to supplement her math lessons.

Hernandez likes how it displays formulas and fills gaps in his knowledge, and he especially thrives on the competition built into the program. For a brief time last fall, the 13-year-old was in second place behind a buddy among all seventh-graders using ThinkThroughMath in Utah.

But ask Hernandez if his success in math this year is due to the software, piloted through Utah’s new STEM Action Center, or his teacher at Bear River Charter School, and he pauses.

It’s not either-or.

“I have a really good teacher. She stays after school for anything I have trouble with,” he says. “But ThinkThroughMath has a bit to do with it, too.”

It’s both.

That’s the kind of anecdotal evidence for the software’s usefulness that is flowing into the center, based in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, after a two-month pilot project.

More than 5,500 students in 40 schools were assessed before, during and after using one of a dozen software programs and against control groups who did not use any software. (Most of the schools are still using the technology, though the formal pilot is over).

The point was to identify — and then deploy — new software that can help schools improve their middle- and high-school math scores, using $8.5 million budgeted by the Legislature last year.

Data from the pilot are expected out this month from researchers at Utah State University and more complete data after end-of-year tests.

But even without the final data, committees of educators working with the STEM Center in December chose seven software programs that will be offered next year, via grants, for sixth through eighth grades and five for high schools.

The 40 pilot schools will have first dibs on the software, which will be demonstrated in the spring during four “road shows” around the state, says Meredith Mannebach, program manager for the center. Other schools also will be able to apply.

The goal is to reach 25 percent of the state’s students in grades six through 12 with new math software next year, says Tami Goetz, the former state science adviser who is taking a leave of absence from Utah Valley University to serve as the STEM center’s director.

The STEM Center, placed in the state’s economic development arm because legislators wanted business to play a role in educating tomorrow’s workforce, is zeroing in first on math because it’s fundamental and because so many Utah students graduate high school unprepared for college math.

Gov. Gary Herbert is seeking $3 million more for the STEM Action Center in next year’s budget.

Math, says Goetz, “is the gorilla in the room.”

‘Students are moving ahead’ » Seventy seventh- and eighth-graders sit in front of Internet-connected computers at Tooele Junior High School, each working at his or her own pace.

One eighth-grader adds and subtracts negative fractions with unlike denominators. When she gets a wrong answer, the program shows where she went wrong and demonstrates the right way to solve the problem.

The next student is using ST Math, a program Tooele Junior High has found especially useful for English-language learners, for those who need remedial math or have trouble reading. It uses only pictures and numbers, no words.

Students essentially play math games, solving addition, subtraction and fraction problems that are presented in pictures, such as flowers or peanuts. When they succeed, Jiji the penguin walks across the screen.

By Kristen Moulton | The Salt Lake Tribune