Students use virtual world to learn math

As Forsyth County Schools’ NOBLE Virtual World begins to generate more teacher interest, one question that repeatedly comes up is “How can math best be taught in a virtual world?” One suggestion is to use the virtual world to provide practical application of the math concepts in an authentic way through the role-play of real life careers. Furthermore, such direct application is often more effective when delivered through another content area other than math.

For example, the fourth grade water quality project at Shiloh Point Elementary School was, on the surface, a unit on environmental science but it was designed to serve as a review of mean, median and mode with the introduction of weighted indexes.

Fourth grade students at Shiloh Point Elementary School. (Image courtesy Forsyth County Schools.)

During the learning adventure, the students pretended to be hydrologists trying to save their leader, Aquarius Garcon, the inventor of the WaterBuoy Water Quality Monitor, from an illness caused by water pollution in the local river.

Working with a partner, students collected data from the WaterBuoy water monitoring stations and recorded their data in their field notes. The WaterBuoy — a fictitious device — was based on the nine tests approved by the National Satiation Foundation to find a Water Quality Index.

Source of the water pollution. (Image courtesy Forsyth County Schools.)

Using avatars in a 3D stimulation of an average American small town, students collected data from a series of water monitors that had been positioned in the river and lake. Based on the collected data, the students identified the source of the pollution and formulated a recommendation on how to get the river clean again. They then presented their finding to the city mayor who determined whether or not to accept the results.

In debriefing session after the unit was concluded, students made the following comments:

  • “When you read a textbook, all you can think is, ‘Am I done yet?’ When in NOBLE, you think, ‘Can we have a little bit more time, please!’”
  • “It’s the best thing I will remember about this school year! I hope my teacher next year will use NOBLE.”
  • “You don’t feel like you learn math, but when I look at my results, I can’t believe how many problems we solved!”
  • “NOBLE makes me learn and do more, even if things are hard to do.”

Lastly, the students were asked what could be done to make the learning adventure better. The overwhelming response was that the problems be made harder as they leveled up.

A virtual oil spill. (Image courtesy Forsyth County Schools.)

“My students kept asking, ‘Can I do more?’ What teacher doesn’t want that?” said classroom teacher Kerry Ward. “They were actively engaged at every stage and were able to apply skills we learn in school to real-life problems. NOBLE has been a powerful experience for my students.”

“Diving into this project was a bit scary step for me,” said Alena Zink, the school’s instructional technology specialist. “I thought the learning curve was too high and there was no way my fourth graders could understand the concepts and follow through with the tasks. But watching them taking control over their learning and fearlessly moving forward and learning much more than required by Georgia Performance standards was a powerful moment. Rigor, critical thinking, collaboration, and real world math applications were very acute and made this experience unforgettable.”

Although averaging mean, median and mode is a Georgia Performance Standard for fourth grade, we felt that the greater immersion that students gain in virtual world would allow us to develop an understanding of weighted categories in the calculation of a water quality index.

“The learning that occurs while student use NOBLE is powerful,” said media specialist Cindy Smith. “The standards are no longer taught in isolation but become part of solving real world problems. The students see the connections with the real world and the value of their education.”

Below are examples of the type of math problems that the fourth graders solved during this learning adventure:

  • To get the secret code for the WaterBuoy Monitor at Station A, you must solve the following: Find the mode of 45, 56, 56, 98 PLUS the median of 44, 46, 47, 49, 50 PLUS the mean of 356, 456, 888
  • The pH Test is weight three times as much as the Turpitude Test. What would be the pH/ Turpitude Index for a water sample with turpitude of 4 and pH of 5?

Of course, we could have given them a worksheet containing the same math problems. And many of them would have worked the problems – maybe even correctly. But the students now OWN these concepts. And that’s a (virtual) world of difference!

Steve Allen Mashburn

Steve Mashburn is the coordinator of online education at Georgia’s Forsyth County Schools and the grid master for the NOBLE (New Opportunities for Better Learning Environments) OpenSim grid.

  • outstanding Steve!  wonderful use of virtual worlds  =)

  • The biggest challenge any instructor has in any learning
    setting is engagement. The more engaged the learners are, whether they are
    fourth graders or business executives, the more open they will be to learning.
    This looks like a great application of virtual learning because it takes what
    can be a dry subject for many (math) and gives it context as well as a purpose.
    That is much more engaging that solving 20 equations stacked on top of one
    another on a page.

    The other thing that’s cool is that the use of a virtual
    environment takes kids out of the ordinary classroom and puts them into a world
    they’ve never seen before. Having a progression to it, i.e. solving one problem
    leads you to the next one, also makes it more interesting than solving problems
    just for their own sake. Having the problems get more difficult as you go is a
    reward in this virtual environment, whereas in a typical problem list in a book
    it often feels more like a punishment. Overall it’s a great application that
    combines psychology with technology. Well done!