Project Spotlight: Enhancing Engagement and Conceptual Understanding of Fractions for Students with Learning Disabilities using the Model Mathematics Education Curriculum

Jessica Hunt’s research supports a re-conceptualization of research and instructional practice using practices from both mathematics education and special education such that students with disabilities can build mathematics proficiency.  Specifically, she designs and tests asset based learning environments and interventions, such as game enhanced curriculums, to understand, support, and extend processes of student learning. Jessica is the Principal Investigator for ITEST project Enhancing Engagement and Conceptual Understanding of Fractions for Students with Learning Disabilities using the Model Mathematics Education Curriculum.


What is unique about your work?

Across the United States, students with LDs comprise the largest subgroup of individuals with disabilities served in K-12 schools. Unfortunately, these students often stop considering careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as early as elementary school. Students with LD in the vast majority of US schools receive supplemental interventions to remediate areas in small groups for 30 minutes a day, 3x per week. This group exhibits reduced  engagement and attendance, often due to boredom. Since 2020, North Carolina State University and University of Central Florida have been working with partners and advisors such as The Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, the Toni Jennings Game Studio, and the Environmental Protection Agency to design and develop a game-based curriculum called Model Mathematics Education, or ModelME. ModelME works to significantly enhance engagement  and conceptual understanding of fractions for students by providing a novel, innovative and integrated curriculum in an virtual learning environment. ModelME is developed using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework to maximize accessibility and engagement by providing conceptual  understanding challenges rooted in authentic STEM and ICT careers. Executive function scaffolds, cognitive tutoring, and authentic formative and summative assessments are included within the user interface. Competitive gameplay combined with collaborative problem-solving and reflection activities strategically link to National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards.

What do you think is your most important learning in this area based on your project work to-date?

This project advances efforts of ITEST program by developing an integrated curriculum for 4th - 6th grade students with learning disabilities and difficulties to increase engagement in and understanding of fraction concepts. The project will impact at least 140 elementary and middle school students and their teachers in both rural and urban settings in North Carolina and Florida who have been underrepresented in STEM and have had limited opportunities to access and advance their STEM knowledge. The project makes use of models from successful startup businesses to build the games, measure outcomes, and revise them through testing with students. The project leverages industry and school partners to infuse the game into elementary and middle school intervention classrooms so that students can experience the game-based mathematics fraction curriculum. We also address a critical need to increase diversity of individuals in STEM through accessible learning environments that foster foundational mathematical learning while growing interest in STEM/ICT careers. We leverage work done within PI Hunt’s CAREER project, which supported the design and development of a curriculum informed by theory and practice across mathematics and special education. This curriculum proactively considers the diversity of thinking students bring to mathematics by using accessible tasks, representations, and teaching moves as the basis for the curriculum. Results indicated students with learning disabilities can learn mathematics using strategies similar to students without disabilities. The two groups differ in the cognitive scaffolds necessary for success. This work informed the game-based challenges and after game tasks that comprise our ModelME program. In the game, carefully sequenced tasks are designed to bring forward student actions of partitioning, iterating, and the coordination of partitioning and iterating into a group structure called splitting, the cognitive structure that underlies fractions as quantities. Cognitive adaptation is supported in the game by prompts that promote students’ noticing and reflecting upon their actions on some object. Socially-mediated learning occurs after the game when teachers encourage students to explain and justify their mathematical thinking to others. Watch our STEM for All videos to learn more about game design process and our work to date.


Based on your experiences, what kinds of experiences support students’ fractions knowledge, engagement, and interest in STEM?

Traditional K-12 STEM education does not fully address the unique issues of access to and  advancement of STEM knowledge for students with LD. Students with LD often  require access to different tools or objects to learn or express their STEM knowledge. They also benefit  from problems that allow for novel solutions because of unexpected prior knowledge brought to  instruction. Both instructional design elements position students’ knowledge as important and  valuable. Unfortunately, students with LD are often taught procedural skills with little opportunity to  express novel reasoning. As a result, students come to view math as irrelevant and disconnected from career pathways they can ultimately attain. ModelME is addressing this problem by producing empirical evidence demonstrating how the design principles and video game user interface capitalize on strengths students bring to instruction while supporting growth. Additionally, a growing line of research on student-centered math interventions reveal promising design elements that can promote robust STEM abilities. The most prominent (i.e., promoting noticing and reflection upon students’ thinking while solving problems; fostering communication and conversation about math reasoning) are underutilized in instruction for students with LD.  Overuse of a strategy where the teacher tells the student what to do or provides static tasks and  representations designed without knowledge of student cognition are dominant. ModelME addresses this challenge by integrating standards-based challenges and assessments into the game to document their promise for supporting cognition. 


What strategies have you found most effective and productive to broadening participation by engaging diverse underrepresented populations in STEM programs and careers?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for the design and implementation of efficacious  instructional materials. The instructor must identify variability within the students prior to class and  proactively circumvent barriers in the curriculum that could inhibit learning. With UDL, instruction is guided by three  principles: (a) multiple means of engagement (i.e. considering how to engage students in multiple ways),  (b) multiple means of representation (i.e. providing content in multiple formats), and (c) multiple means  of action and expression (i.e. providing opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding in  multiple ways). UDL helps teachers consider student-level variability  as well as content and physical accessibility. The ModelME curriculum and video game utilize the UDL framework through digital tools  located in the user interface. Information is available using multiple modalities for a personalized  system of supports such as text-to-speech. These UDL features have been empirically shown to eliminate  differences in performance between students with and without disabilities in middle school science  classes. Our work is currently investigating if the same results occur in mathematics.