DIP: ‘Hard Fun’ Learning Mathematics: Stimulating Number Sense

PIs: Daphne Bavelier, Justin Halberda, Alan Gershenfeld, Michael Angst, Michael Levine
University of Rochester
Award Detail

This project focuses on development of number sense in 7 to 11 year old students through a 3D action game that will train the brain. The project tests a hypothesis that playing a number-sense action game can help children learn beyond the game, making them better overall at number-line sense, precision of numerosity, speed of numerical judgments, and ability to multitask numerical tasks. The innovation is twofold: a game, adapted from first-person shooter games, to train number sense, and a platform that makes it easy to vary aspects of the game (e.g., repetition, speed, number of possibilities) to be able to analyze what is it that is making a difference with respect to learning. Research is identifying the qualities of computer games that will train the brain to be automatic in its judgments and at qualities of experiences that promote such automaticity.

This project aims to promote fundamental mathematical competence in a way that makes the mathematics learning feel effortless and genuinely fun. In particular, the aim is to help children develop number sense, an ability to very quickly make estimates and numerical judgments. Such capability is key to keeping up in mathematics; children without that sense tend to lose interest in mathematics because mathematical computation becomes too frustrating. Training number sense, and, in turn, fostering mathematical performance, should allow more learners to think of themselves as “good at math.” Cultivating a child’s interest in mathematics from a young age has been identified as key to feeding STEM career paths.

The vehicle for promoting such mathematics learning is a new type of video game with foundations in first-person shooter games. Rather than shooting, players cast spells that require quick numerical estimates. There is reason to believe that such a game will be as engaging as first-person shooter games are. First-person shooter games have been shown to increase attention and executive control in adults, the kinds of cognitive skills known to foster academic achievement. Because engaging video games will reach and be played by a wide range of children; such a game has potential to reach at-risk populations who most need to better develop their number sense and those important skills. The intent is for the game to be used in informal settings, providing a complementary tool for educators to foster mathematics skills. Research that is done in the context of this game will identify the characteristics of game play that promote skill automation, foundational knowledge that is needed to provide a road map for creating child-friendly consumer video games to improve other important aspects of core cognition beyond number sense.

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