A University of Canberra research project has found a way to develop a year’s worth of mathematics skills in just three weeks for primary school students.
The preliminary findings from the project, which was a collaboration between the university’s STEM Education Research Centre (SERC) and tech giant Samsung Australia, were presented Wednesday at Parliament House in Canberra.
The research provided a group of year 5 and 6 pupils in 20 Canberra and Goulburn Catholic schools with software and hardware to take them through a spatial reasoning program, which developed the students’ ability to “locate, orientate and visualise objects”, decode infographics, and create and interpret diagrams.
After three weeks, the group was tested and compared to children that went through traditional classroom teaching. The outcome was that students that went through the spatial reasoning program showed improvements in maths skills that usually only develop over a full year.
University of Canberra centenary professor and SERC director Thomas Lowrie said that, while the correlation between spatial reasoning and maths ability for all ages was already known, the high impact of the Samsung experiment surprised and pleased everyone.
“The results we are actually blown away by… Now we’ve got this exciting period to think about what to do next,” he said.
One of the teachers involved in the project, St Joseph’s year 5 teacher Deborah Heath, said that while the results were “amazing”, she could already see from the children during the experiment that they were improving.
“They used to say to me ‘When are we doing maths? Are we doing maths today?’,” she said. “It was a big change.”
Federal assistant minister for innovation Craig Laundy said at the event that the corporate and academic worlds need to collaborate to complement government efforts because Australia’s current competitiveness in science and maths is dire.
“Let’s not sugar-coat it. We wouldn’t need to do innovation and work in this space if things were going well,” he said.
“All our test results in international measures show us that we need to keep investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).”
Lowrie said that mathematics capability at school age is widely acknowledged as “the most influential indicator” for success in adulthood.
“While high levels of competence are required for the most technically advanced jobs of the future, a broad foundation is essential for everyone’s overall wellbeing. There’s no doubt that attaining success in school mathematics will positively influence success in the workplace and life at large,” said Lowrie.
The project also involved a high school group, with participants from years 7 to 11, that used smartphones to conduct scientific investigations and to analyse and present the data afterwards using technology. Full post-analysis research results will be published next year.
Samsung Australia head of corporate social responsibility Tess Ariotti said the company was compelled to take part because the local workforce was in urgent need of STEM skills.
“Building competence in STEM practices today can lead to future success for young Australians and a boost to our economy,” she said.
In order to succeed, said Ariotti, initiatives to boost STEM learning need to listen to the children themselves.
“If students say maths and science are difficult and boring then we need to trust that this is their experience.”
Lowrie said that for younger children, parents didn’t even need to invest in high tech gadgets like the ones provided by Samsung to improve their spatial reasoning.
“If you’re a parent, you have to go buy Lego… If you’re using Lego when you’re 4 years of age, you’re more likely to become an engineer than any other predictor that scientists have been able to work out.”
The journalist travelled to Canberra courtesy of Samsung Australia.