$2.4 Million grant is helping UMass researchers create "Tinkerplots" software for kids

April 24, 2000

Statistics class has a reputation for tripping up even the brightest students. But a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation is enabling University of Massachusetts researchers to develop software that helps middle-school students get a grip on stats before math anxiety grips them. And that's important, says team leader Cliff Konold, because statistics and data analysis are becoming a bigger part of the world, not just for academic pursuits, but for everyday decision making. The group is working on the project under the auspices of the Scientific Reasoning Research Institute (SRRI), an interdisciplinary research organization devoted to the study of learning and instruction in the sciences and mathematics.

"Data analysis is more and more important. The involved citizen is expected to interpret displays of data in newspapers from the New York Times to the local weekly. If you listen to campaign arguments about gun control, health care, and education, those arguments are all made in terms of statistics." In decades past, students didn't encounter statistics and data analysis until college. Now they tangle with the topics as early as kindergarten, Konold says. "They might poll the class and ask everyone's favorite color, and then chart their preferences. By fifth grade, we see students tackling some complex and important questions, such as what maximum weight students of various genders and sizes should carry in their backpacks."

The software, dubbed "Tinkerplots," enables students to enter and analyze data, producing plots that reveal patterns and trends. Prototypes are being tested in two area schools. Researchers hope it will be widely available in 2003. The team includes software engineer Craig Miller, research specialist Amy Robinson, and Rachel Wing, a graduate student in developmental psychology.

Programs currently available for students offer a limited variety of plots, such as pie charts, bar graphs, and pictograms. In contrast, Tinkerplots is a virtual construction set that allows students to create a far greater range of representations. "Students select plots from traditional tools as if they were picking items from a restaurant menu. This may get them a good meal, but they don't learn to cook," said Robinson. "Tinkerplots is more like a stock of supplies in their kitchen, that they can use to cook whatever they like."

The software is being developed in collaboration with several experts from across the country and around the world who write middle-school math curricula. "Given the many constraints on their time, teachers are unlikely to use math software in the classroom unless it is well-integrated with their particular curriculum," Konold explains.
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Note: Cliff Konold can be reached at 413-545-5886 or konold@srri.umass.edu

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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