Innovation Math Challenge Interviews


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Interview with David Ng of Vertical Learning Labs, Winner of the IMC Challenge.

Tell us about yourself.

My background is in education.  I was a middle school math and science teacher and curriculum coordinator for almost 20 years starting in 1995. I’ve always had an interest in curriculum and education reform. Two to three years ago I decided to start my own company, Vertical Learning Labs, where we develop innovative tools and curriculum for students in STEM. We focus on Middle School, but do other grade levels as well.

How did you start writing apps?

I have a niece in 2nd grade and a nephew 4th grade, and I wrote an app for them on place value. I created both an interactive textbook and an educational game because I was curious to see which would do better. People seem to prefer the game — the game is definitely doing much better in terms of sales.

I think there’s a difference between educational apps for classroom use and home use. When kids go home, they’ve had math class for the day and they have math homework, so doing extra math on top of that is going to be much more interesting for them if its something immersive, such as a game. It’s still learning but not quite as upfront. Playing a game that is fun in itself can be immersive and put students in a flow state.

What takeaway do you want students to get from Vertical Learning Labs and Drawing Area?

One of the things I really want kids to get is that math is not intimidating.

A lot of kids get intimidated by math, but it’s really not that hard. Drawing Area shows kids that, if you can draw a shape on grid paper, then you can find its area. I can give you the most complicated looking polygon in the world but as long as you can take it and draw it, you can break it down and find the area. I want them to have that confidence, thinking: “If I can do this first step, then the rest will follow.”

How do you come up with your lessons and what is your brainstorming/creative process?

When I was teaching area myself, I had a number of students who were struggling with decomposing shapes. As an adult, you look at a polygon and instantaneously you can see how to break it up into rectangles and triangles. My students, however, weren’t all seeing it and were thinking something was wrong with them since everyone else could instantaneously spot it. Many students also struggled with figuring out the lengths of sides that didn’t have a given dimension. I was seeing students add or subtract random sides, and it was clear that they weren’t sure how the rest of the class was figuring out these unknown lengths. I thought if they could draw a polygon with given dimensions on a sheet of grid paper, then they could count and figure out the length of sides, and build their intuition that way.

I wasn’t using technology at the time, but when the Innovation Math Challenge came up and was technology-based, I went through my head searching for units that I’ve done in the past where I could implement technology in a way to make the unit better.

I avoid putting in technology for technology’s sake, but when it came to drawing on a computer versus drawing on grid paper, the technology really added to the lesson and made it much easier for kids. When you’re doing trial and error with paper and pencil, you’re only going to do it a few times before you get frustrated; whereas on the computer you can redraw and tweak, and it’s a lot more user friendly.

Most of the apps I write are based on curriculum that I developed when I was teaching without technology, but where I feel that technology would enhance the instruction and student understanding.

I couldn’t really find any resources that were addressing the issue students were having with how do you break up this shape and how do you find the missing length. If students weren’t able to intuitively get those steps, there was nothing out there to help them. Students were stuck.

Did you like math when you were younger? 

I was good at math. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is that when I was studying math, I really hated memorizing things so I would spend a lot of my own time trying to understand what I was learning in class. For me it was a 2-stage process — you experience something in math class and then, on your own, you have to make sense of it. 

How would you like your resource to be used in the classroom?

I’m very unit-focused so I’d like to see it integrated into a full unit on area and not just used as a stand-alone thing that kids go to.

What advice do you have for making math content?

Identifying the needs of students is the most important. Try to make a difference in the classroom. Drawing Area came out of my experience as a classroom teacher closely observing my students, seeing where the stumbling blocks were. Here are where my students are having issues, what can I do to help them? That’s the starting point for me.


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