A Website Where
Students Can Go Figure
UCLA's problem-solving site demands more critical thinking
than multiple-choice tests. It also lets teachers track
Joel Rubin, Times Staff Writer
December 8, 2004
No textbooks were to be found or lectures
to be heard in Debi Storing's eighth-grade science class
at Yorba Linda Middle School one day last week.
Instead, her students sat down before laptop
computers, logged on to a UCLA research website and set
Thirteen-year-old Craig Matthews furrowed his brow as
he took on a problem in which he had to piece together
a fictional road trip through American cities using limited
time and gas.
Clicking between maps and mileage charts,
Matthews calculated gas mileage and driving times, methodically
eliminating cities until he landed on the only possible
itinerary: Detroit to Baltimore via Indianapolis.
Sitting next to Matthews, Trista Dwyer breezed
through a problem in which she assumed the role of an
assayer from the Wild West, responsible for determining
the volume and value of various ores.
Until they graduate from the Placentia-Yorba
Linda school district, Matthews, Dwyer and thousands of
their fellow students will visit UCLA's Interactive Multi-Media
Exercises website countless times. After years helping
to develop the research project, district teachers in
nearly every grade are using the many problems on the
site in their math and science lessons. The program, teachers
and researchers say, not only pushes students to think
more critically, but also aims to help teachers better
understand how students learn.
"At this point, we can start to predict
what kids will do with a problem — the ways they
will go about solving it," said Ron Stevens, a UCLA
medical professor and the founder of the system.
"We are trying to provide teachers
with tools to help guide their instruction."
Stevens developed the IMMEX computer program
in 1986 after growing frustrated with using run-of-the-mill,
multiple-choice exams to evaluate his students' ability
to diagnose complex medical conditions. Stevens designed
the system to present students with real-life scenarios
that changed as students selected the various tests they
would run and the treatments they would pursue. Stevens
quickly saw broader possibilities.
"I thought, It's crazy to wait until
kids get to medical school to engage them in this type
of thinking," he said.
Stevens secured grants to finance the project,
and with the proliferation of computers in schools, roughly
120,000 students across the country are using the 60 or
so IMMEX problem sets that address math, biology and chemistry,
among other subjects. In "Commotion in the Ocean,"
for example, kindergarteners learn about animals as they
determine, through the process of elimination, which sea
creatures are swimming around Titanic. High school senior
biology students, meanwhile, are using the "MicroQuest"
problem to analyze antibiotics. In every problem, students
can arrive at the correct answer by numerous paths, although
some routes are much more efficient than others.
It is not by chance that more than 4,000
of the students using the system attend Placentia-Yorba
Linda schools. Marcia Sprang, a high school chemistry
teacher in the district, has been a driving force of the
project since she met Stevens in the mid-1990s, not only
in selling it to fellow teachers, but also in helping
build the project.
Each summer, Sprang convenes a two-week
workshop in which she teams teachers and computer-savvy
students to devise, build and upload new problems for
the website's curriculum.
The sessions — which have produced
much of the content of the project — are challenging
for the teachers, Sprang said, since they must rethink
old ways of teaching material in order to develop the
Sprang has used the website questions in
her classes since 1997 and has slowly spread the message
about it throughout the district. This year, with the
help of a federal grant, district officials bought enough
computers to allow every middle-school teacher to use
it at least once a week.
"Teachers are always trying to determine
if what and how they are teaching is effective,"
said Art Adair, a curriculum specialist who works with
Sprang. "IMMEX is a way to test that. Through it,
teachers can tell whether students have the basic building
blocks to understand the material and whether they have
the critical thinking skills that are needed."
Stevens and his team, meanwhile, are tracking
the choices that students make each time they tackle one
of the project's problems, in an effort to identify patterns.
Understanding the strategies the students
use, they say, will help teachers restructure how they
present material in class to be more in line with the
ways students think.
Sprang is already making changes. After
years of waiting until late in her course to teach a lesson
on the pH of acids, for example, Sprang now teaches it
months earlier after realizing that her students needed
the information to more efficiently complete a problem
on the website. "There was no reason not to move
it around," she said. "Student performance definitely
informs us of how they are learning."
Early indications of whether the system
is improving student achievement are encouraging, Sprang
In a study conducted over the course of
last year, district middle school students who used the
Web-based problems in class raised their scores on assessment
tests by an average of 15%.
Also telling, said eighth-grade teacher
Storing, is that her students look forward to those lessons
during which they are noticeably more engaged than when
they are scribbling notes during a lecture.
"I love it," Storing said. "It
helps students pull out information they didn't even know
they had in them."
Original source: http://www.latimes.com