With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Candace Walkington is an assistant professor in teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University. Her research focuses on innovative ways to teach math to middle school and high school students.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Tell me about your research as it relates to teaching math differently.

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Candace Walkington: My research mainly focuses on ways to make mathematics instruction more engaging for students in grades six through 10. Research suggests that’s a particularly problematic time for students when it comes to motivation and interest in math.

I look at interventions where mathematics is connected to things that students are interested in, like popular culture interests. This could include their experiences playing sports, playing video games, engaging with social media and how they’re using numerical and algebraic reasoning in all of these contexts.

Trib+Edu: Why is mathematics intervention important for this age group?

Walkington: In Texas middle schools, only around 70 percent of students actually pass our state standardized tests in math. If you look at the passing rate for students who are economically disadvantaged, it’s around 60 percent. These numbers have been on a pattern of decline.

According to ACT scores, only 42 percent of test takers in Texas are deemed college ready in mathematics, meaning they have a reasonable chance of being successful in an introductory college algebra course.

So things are happening around this middle school transition and the end of high school transition, which is causing a lot of students to turn away from mathematics, disengage and run into trouble in these classes.

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Trib+Edu: How is a regular math class taught? How is what you’re advocating different?

Walkington: In a regular math class, a teacher may tell you to write an equation. They’ll go through the procedures using algebra and give the student some application problems at the end and they apply that equation to different real world contexts.

What my research does is it splits that process. We start out with the real world context and we make it something that is familiar and meaningful for students.

With social media, people track how many likes they get over time on something they post. In video games, you track how much experience you’re gaining and in sports, you’re tracking your players’ statistics.

Students at this age are dealing with lot of numbers. In my research, we started by talking to kids about how numbers and quantities are used in our interest areas. We then use those ways as an entry point into learning algebra.

Trib+Edu: Could you see this being done on a larger scale? How would you standardize something like this?

Walkington: I have added these types of tasks that connect students with popular culture into an intelligent tutoring system, computer software that delivers math problems. The software assesses what they’re interested in and gives them problem tasks based on those interests.

One issue with this approach is when you standardize it, you lose a lot of the richness. So, along with exploring those top down approaches, my research focuses on some bottom up approaches where we design lesson plans for teachers.

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In these plans, the teacher is given a structure in which they can help students explore the quantitative aspects about their interests. Students then discuss and write their own problems about their interests and trade and answer each others' problems.

Trib+Edu: You’ve also researched the role of motion in math. Tell me more about that.

Walkington: We are looking at using platforms like the Xbox Kinect to bring video game-like experiences into math classes. In some research we’re using the Kinect to help students make body motions in a video game environment that relate to geometry principles, to physically form angles and triangles. It takes place within the game storyline.

Trib+Edu: What feedback have you received from students about these initiatives?

Walkington: With the video game design, we certainly ask for student feedback about the game: how it compares to regular class. They always say, in math class I always get worksheets and this is something that gets me moving and thinking. They enjoy the creative problem-solving aspect of it.

With the work on popular culture interests, the way we assess that is we look at how their interest in math changes over time. We found that, whereas typically with adolescents you see a decline in students’ interests in math, we can at the very least level it off.

Trib+Edu: Tell me about the outcomes you’re tracking in your research

Walkington: One of the big outcomes we’re looking for is interest. We want students to develop interest in mathematics, or at least not decline in their interest and we’ve had some nice results. We are also looking at student learning: how well they actually understand these algebraic or geometry principles after experience interventions.

Trib+Edu: What’s the biggest challenge with getting schools to invest resources into teaching math in this way?

Walkington: The most difficult thing with school districts, is the concern about student test scores. The fact that there is such an incredible amount of pressure on teachers, on principals, on students, to make these progress benchmarks and not wanting to risk trying anything that’s not safe, even though, only 70 percent of kids are passing these state tests.

I’m still pretty optimistic about it. There are a lot of structural issues in districts that prevent innovations from making it in. There’s a lot of bureaucracy and assessment issues but I have really good relationships with teachers, district staff and schools and everybody wants to serve their kids better.

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