Dr. Nathan Jones Awarded $3 Million NSF DRK-12 Grant to Study Whether Simulations Can Improve Math Teaching for Students with Disabilities

The National Science Foundation has announced the funding of a new collaborative study between Boston University and the University of Virginia that will examine how teaching simulations, in conjunction with other curricular supports, might improve how preservice general educators teach mathematics to students with disabilities. 

Dr. Nathan Jones, associate professor in BU Wheelock’s special education program, and Dr. Julie Cohen, assistant professor of curriculum, instruction, and special education at the Curry School of Education an­d Human Development at the University of Virginia, are the principal investigators of “Collaborative Research: Leveraging Simulations in Preservice Preparation to Improve Mathematics Teaching for Students with Disabilities.”

They are joined by co-PIs Dr. Vivian C. Wong and Dr. Robert Berry, both of the Curry School of Education and Human Development at UVA, and Dr. Lynsey Gibbons, assistant professor in BU Wheelock’s mathematics education program. Funding for this study comes from NSF’s Discovery Research PreK-12 program (DRK-12), which seeks to significantly enhance the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) by preK-12 students and teachers, through research and development of STEM education innovations and approaches.

The goal of the project is to address a common challenge faced by beginning general education teachers: most receive no more than a single course on teaching students with disabilities. With persistent gaps in long-term math outcomes between students with and without disabilities, teacher education programs need additional ways to provide training to preservice general educators so that they enter the classroom better equipped to meet the needs of these students.

In this study, the research team will capitalize on the emergence of mixed-reality simulations to provide new learning opportunities to candidates in preservice elementary education programs. Simulations – where teachers implement instructional skills or strategies with student avatars played by actors – provide candidates with safe, realistic practice spaces where they can receive coaching and the opportunity for “do-overs.” The research team will develop, implement, and evaluate learning units centered on these simulations to provide teacher candidates new opportunities to learn mathematics teaching practices that are known to support students with disabilities.

By bringing together two historically separate communities of scholars in the service of defining the high-leverage practices that can help elementary educators better serve students with disabilities.

Work will begin this year with the creation and convening of a consensus-building panel, bringing together national experts representing two historically separate communities of scholars, mathematics and special educators. The panel will include Dr. Deborah Ball (University of Michigan), Dr. Mary Brownell (University of Florida), Dr. Lynn Fuchs (Vanderbilt University), Dr. Nancy Jordan (University of Delaware), Dr. Karen Karp (Johns Hopkins University), and Dr. Sarah Powell (University of Texas).

That group will work together to define two high-leverage practices that bridge the gap between traditional mathematics and special education pedagogies: teacher modeling of self-monitoring and reflection strategies during mathematical problem-solving, and the use of strategy instruction to teacher students to identify the underlying schema of mathematics problems.

Beginning in 2021, the research team will design and pilot learning units that support the high-quality use of those practices, intended for use as part of elementary mathematics methods courses. These learning units will feature mixed-reality simulation scenarios: virtual classrooms populated by student avatars. The researchers note that such simulations will allow the team to observe teacher candidate performance in standardized practice spaces, while providing them with realistic and safe practice spaces.

After they create these learning units, the research team will work with partners at three institutions to deploy and evaluate the effects of the units on teacher candidates’ beliefs and skills. Preservice educators at UVA, Boston University, and UMass Boston will engage in these units along with the additional curricular supports developed by the team. The researchers will conduct a randomized control trial to test the impact of these units on participating teacher candidates’ instruction and self-efficacy.

BU Wheelock’s involvement in this work is two-fold. Dr. Jones, through his research on conceptualizing and measuring effective teaching practice, and Dr. Gibbons, through her research in using coaching to support teachers’ mathematics instruction, bring essential experience and knowledge to the research team. And, by participating in the evaluation of the learning units the research team develops, a number of BU Wheelock students will be among the first to experience an innovative approach to educator preparation while contributing to a major new study.