UMass researchers use ‘TinkerPlots’ to teach students data literacy

By Sam Butterfield

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If you were like most, math may not have been your favorite subject in your primary and secondary school education.

It was boring, it seemed irrelevant or tedious, your teacher had dandruff and was always wearing holiday sweaters.

University of Massachusetts Scientific Reasoning Research Institute (SRRI) fellows Cliff Konold, an educational psychologist, and Craig Miller, a software designer, believe they have a solution for that.

They call it TinkerPlots. It is a software program designed to make understanding basic statistical concepts painless and maybe even fun for elementary and specifically middle school students around the world.

The duo have been working on the project, which has already seen two versions released and a third in the works, since 2000, according to Konold, and have labored over revision after revision and improvement after improvement throughout that time to create an engaging, interactive program which makes learning principles like correlation and relation between groups comprehensible and enjoyable.

Now, with a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation, they will be able to develop a third, livelier and more engaging version of the program.

Konold brings an understanding of the way students think and how to maximize learning, while Miller works on creating easily understandable, dynamic software.

Konold said the program was born out of a common lack of understanding of statistical analysis which he felt needed to be addressed.

“There’s a lot of difficulties in peoples’ understanding of statistical analysis that have been well researched,” he said, explaining that he and Miller designed the program not so much as a tutorial concept but as a tool for students to learn how to interpret statistics without really feeling as though they are studying.

“It’s a pretty general data analysis tool,” he said, “not like Excel, but something like that.”

“The curriculum that we write or that others write makes use of TinkerPlots, but the program in itself doesn’t teach anything,” he elaborated.

Konold explained that the program incorporates real statistical data sets with relevance to students, such as one analysis students perform on weight of backpack by grade and gender to determine what is a reasonable weight for students and the relation between these data.

“The program comes with about 40 data sets,” he said. “We’ve written activities exploring the trends in gold medal times for various Olympic competitions and how those have changed over time.”

Konold said that the program’s second version, which he and Miller have just finished developing, also includes probability simulations, as he stressed that educators are now attempting to teach statistical concepts well before the conventional period of late in high school or in college.

“Statistics and probability are now topics that they are trying to teach in middle school,” Konold said. “They’re being seen as increasingly important subjects.” He explained that many primary teachers have anxiety about teaching such concepts, as they have little experience with them themselves.

“One reason we’re not more prominent in more schools is because teachers really don’t understand how to teach (statistics),” he said.

Version two, he explained, will allow students to determine the probability of various outcomes based on the data they collect, giving more real-world pertinence to the program.

He continued that developing each version of the software has taken the duo approximately three to four years, with countless revisions and tweaks based on trials in classrooms throughout the process.

“We started working on the program in 2000,” Konold said. “It was first commercially released in 2004.”

TinkerPlots has reached a much wider area then just Massachusetts, Konold and Miller noted, explaining that the program is currently being translated into Russian and Thai for use in their school systems, and that it is already in use in places like Ontario, Canada and Las Vegas, Nev.

Konold said that version three is in the works, though slowly. He explained that the version will be largely based on games where students run analysis through their performance.

“The basic idea is to be able to host class games within the TinkerPlots application,” he said. “These are very simple games that students play that create data as they play them and then students analyze the data to improve their game play.”

“It’s an attempt to teach data analysis in a game context,” he added, reflecting the goal of the program.

“The really important thing is learning to analyze, looking at groups and group differences and thinking about how to summarize those,” he said.

While Konold said that he handles the educational research and statistics-based elements of the software, the software itself is Miller’s forte.

“What I try to do is make it really good and fun, exciting software,” he said.

He explained that his background is in designing advanced software and animation, which gives him the ability to make TinkerPlots visually appealing and more mathematically complex than students will see.

“What’s really fun about the software is that it was really designed from the ground up,” he said. “Not what an expert would do but how a student is trying to learn.”

Miller continued to say that what he likes about TinkerPlots is that it gives students who are just beginning to understand statistical concepts the tools experts would have in conducting analysis.

“It’s really designed with students in mind, but doing what an expert does,” he said.

“I used to work on tools for artists doing video animations, very complex software and very complex statistical software, now we’re taking something where somebody with a very simple understanding and giving them the tools that used to be available only to a professional,” he said.

He furthered that he appreciates that TinkerPlots is commercially viable while having a socially relevant impact.

“It’s really great working at the University with researchers in education and having the education support the commercial product and the commercial product support the educational aspect,” he said.

TinkerPlots has been taught as far away as New Zealand and Australia and as close to home as Amherst and Holyoke, Mass. It is available through Key Curriculum Press.

Sam Butterfield can be reached at [email protected]