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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 students' methods.

By 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 to work.

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 multilayered problems.

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 said.

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."

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