By Mary Lynn Lyke
New Tech is Teacher Tool for Dynamic Math Educator
Her early teachers would be “appalled” that she has a Ph.D. in mathematics education, says UW Bothell associate professor Robin Angotti. Former co-workers at a mobile home manufacturing factory might be stunned. Even friends make sure she never gets near the bill when it’s time to divvy it up at the restaurant.
“I’m mathematically challenged,” admits Angotti, who aced algebra but stumbled with traditionally taught arithmetic. “I didn’t just ‘get’ math, I had to work at it. I am tenacious enough that I don’t give up.”
Tenacity, drive and a willingness to defy conventional thinking have marked the unlikely career trajectory of this energetic teacher and researcher, whose work focuses on the potential impact of emerging technology on mathematical learning.
Technology has changed our everyday relationship with mathematics, she points out. Excel has replaced accounting ledgers. Phone apps calculate distance to destination. “But this hasn’t necessarily changed the way we teach mathematics,” says Angotti. “The schools you go in are rarely putting new technology to use.”
Angotti, a lively math instructor who jumps to the whiteboard with the eagerness of a basketball player to a hoop, describes herself as an “early adopter” of technology. Long before earning her Ph.D., when she was still teaching high school mathematics in the rural Deep South, she broke with tradition by putting calculators to use in classrooms.
Other educators at the time dismissed calculators as a “crutch.” To Angotti they were one more way to draw students into math and explain its underlying concepts. “If that calculator would let me reach one more student, I was going to use it.”
Her tools have evolved: Today Angotti is using video games and off-the-shelf motion-sensing game consoles such as Kinect to involve students in mathematics. But her fierce conviction that educators should use any and all technological means to reach out to students, every student, including the ones who don’t “get” math, continues to fuel her work.
“I was one of those kids who didn’t understand the basics the way they were presented. For students like me who think differently, it’s important to break down mathematics in multiple ways, especially in highly diverse classrooms.”
Technology can provide a visual assist. Dynamic software such as Fathom and Tableau lets users graph a line then grab its points, pull on them, and see how the graph, its table of values and the underlying equation simultaneously shift and interact. With Microsoft’s Kinect and other motion-sensing equipment instructors and students can orchestrate this process on-screen with body gestures from anywhere in the classroom.
“Mathematics suddenly becomes more accessible when students have concrete, kinesthetic ways to interact with graphs and tables and equations. It’s a powerful way to learn,” says Angotti, who, with funding from an Educators for the 21st Century grant, has spent the past three summers teaching rural educators to use new technology in a high-poverty, highneeds, linguistically diverse district in Eastern Washington.
“For students who struggle,” she says, “these technological tools can make a huge difference.”
To increase student buy-in, Angotti has also introduced 21 new math lessons based on popular video games. The lessons encourage students to become
“data detectives.” If a dance game spits out a score, based on calories burned and duration of exercise, students can do some reverse engineering and figure out the original equation that sourced the program. “I want students to question how programmers came up with the score, and have the power to figure out whether the equations are right or not,” says Angotti, who teaches mathematics and methods courses in the university’s Education Program.
Her students at UW Bothell daily witness the excitement she brings to the field of mathematics. “She is very dynamic, very democratic and very responsive,” says former student Sarah Woolley, now working as a first-year teacher in Puyallup after earning her master’s in education at UW Bothell. “Her thinking on technology has really helped me get my students engaged and helped my teaching seem more relevant.”
Angotti’s own course to higher education was a rocky one. “It’s a miracle I ever earned a Ph.D.,” she says.
She grew up in Maine, at the end of the Appalachian Trail, hating school, even though she was good at it. She graduated early, at 16, and had a baby by the time she was 17. “I was a single mom, living on the streets and starving.”
She headed to North Carolina to live with her mom and worked in a factory making mobile homes to support herself and her child. A supplementary job,
tutoring students, convinced her to go on to college and major in mathematics, her hardest subject. “Everything else was easy,” says Angotti. “I figured, why major in something you don’t have to work at?”
After earning a B.S. and M.A. from East Carolina University, graduating Magna Cum Laude, she taught highschool mathematics for ten years, moving away from what she calls traditional “cookbook” methods dictating one way of solving problems to an “organic”approach that allowed students multiple routes to arrive at the same answers, through graphs, tables, word problems, visual representations or symbolic representations.
Her classroom became a think tank of discussion and discovery, with Angotti using inquiry methods to prod her students. If a student asked, “Is this right,” Angotti would say. “I don’t know, is it? You tell me. Talk me through what you’ve done here.”
Students almost always answered their own questions, she says. “It’s not enough for students to just be right. They have to be competent and confident in their mathematical abilities. The more they can argue what a problem is all about, the better math thinkers they will be.”
After writing a dissertation on teaching practices using multiple mathematical representations, Angotti decided to test her approach by teaching an algebra class full of the lowest-achieving students in a local school. “I taught the heck out of that class,” says Angotti. “I wanted to see if what I was saying was really working.”
The pass rate for her class, which included a high percentage of special needs students, was 100 percent. “They could do the math. We just had to figure out how to unlock the door for them and give them the resources,” says Angotti.
The tenacious teacher who wouldn’t give up on herself has never let her students give up, either. It’s a lesson this teacher of teachers, whose path took her from factory to faculty, now passes on to new generations of educators at UW Bothell.
“It is up to us to keep students thinking they can do anything,” says Angotti. “All it takes is one adult believing in you, one adult thinking you can do it, to change your life and take you down a different path.”