Stefanie Knowlton, (Salem, Ore.) Statesman Journal
SALEM, Ore. - iPad apps that college students have developed soon could help high school and middle schoolstudents crack the code of algebra, often a gatekeeper to college entry.
The tools assist teachers in diagnosing where students struggle and offer interactive solutions to put them on track.
One app called "Card Clutter" helps students understand the relative value of numbers by arranging cards in order with face values ranging from negative fractions to absolute numbers. Those expressions sometimes stump students when solving algebraic equations.
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Many of the apps are available for free on iTunes.
The program is part of a joint effort with George Fox, Pacific, Western Oregon and Willamette universities to increase student success in algebra. They received a $740,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create the Center for Algebraic Thinking.
"Algebra is the gateway to college," said Steve Rhine, the project's director and Willamette education professor. "It is most correlated with going to college of anything you take in high school."
In Oregon, 1 of 3 high school students failed the state math test last year. Rhine said the main reason is not understanding algebra.
Next year, the stakes will be raised. All high school students must pass the state math test to earn their high school diploma. Without interventions, Rhine said graduation rates will plummet.
Ryan Hari, a math teacher at Parrish Middle School here, is a fan of the technology, especially in his math-intensive classes for struggling students. He was one of the first to field-test the apps and received eight iPads as part of the grant.
Recently a handful of his students tapped the touch screens in rapid fire to solve for x.
"Do some 'Alge-Bingo' for me," he told Zack Sheldon, who quickly got to work.
"It makes it fun and easy," Sheldon said.
Programmers building apps for the project didn't design that app, but it motivates users thanks to bingo tiles given for every right answer.
Hari's students end up solving many more equations with the app than they would on paper, he said. Another benefit is instant feedback.
"I would be unable to give that amount of feedback to that many students that quickly," he said.
Rhine sees tablets as the textbooks of the future, another good reason to develop teaching tools for them.
He and 16 other educators started the first phase of the project two years ago when they combed through 800 studies on what makes algebra so hard.
They isolated 70 common pitfalls and posted them online atwww.algebraicthinking.org. The site breaks down each problem, common mistakes and solutions to help everyone from student teachers to veteran teachers plan lessons.
Willamette University also created an app development class, and students in it designed half the apps for the grant. Top students, including Stephanie Jones, went on to teach the independent study class the next year.
Jones said it was a great way to use her math skills, teaching skills and computer science skills at the same time.
She developed the "Diamond Factor" app, which helps students factor trinomials, an algebraic expression with three terms such as x² + 8x + 16.
The three-year grant wraps up this year, but Rhine is applying for another one to expand the project. He will find out this spring whether the center gets the $1.5 million grant.
After that? He might tackle another common roadblock: geometry.