Use of technology adds up to success for mathematics student teachers

Jim Carlson
November 30, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With the steady advancement of technology in mathematics education, Penn State College of Education students aspiring to teach that specific subject have had to adapt just as rapidly.

From Microsoft Teams to Blackboard to Desmos to GeoGebra to Big Ideas Math, student teachers have to have more than just algebraic expressions and formulas in their heads these days in order to successfully deliver a message to the minds of high school students. Add COVID-induced hybrid teaching, social distancing measures for those still in a school or adapting to teaching virtually, and it’s a lot to handle for veteran teachers, let alone the students who have yet to earn a professional paycheck.

A survey of a small sampling of student teachers working with mentors in suburban Pittsburgh school districts this fall shows that many students are embracing the mathematics education/technology environment in which they find themselves.

Zoe Strickland, for example, taught virtually in the Riverview School District in Oakmont for the first nine weeks and currently is in a hybrid situation. 

“I have used GeoGebra, Desmos and Big Ideas Math (which is related to the textbook we use),” Strickland said. “GeoGebra is a free online software and I have used GeoGebra and Desmos for graphing inequalities, graphing systems of equations and graphing transformations. I have designed activities specifically for students on GeoGebra, so I try to make each activity as user-friendly as possible. Students seem to adapt fairly well. 

“Desmos requires a bit more knowledge in order to graph properly,” she added. “The majority of students have no issues using that website; however, I did need to go through an extra tutorial for several students. Personally, I learned about most software through Penn State classes. I can’t stress how helpful these manipulatives have been when teaching math.”

Todd Andrulis, chairman of the mathematics department at Riverview and Strickland’s mentor, said the major takeaway that Strickland has demonstrated to them is that Desmos and GeoGebra are tools that positively affect student learning and engagement in myriad settings, whether it be virtual, hybrid or full in-person instruction. 

“Desmos, in particular, has provided us with a powerful tool to expand students' explorations with functions and help strengthen their understanding of concepts such as transformations,” Andrulis said. “With virtual and hybrid instruction currently taking place, Zoe has played a critical role introducing and training me and the students to use these powerful technological tools to improve instruction and learning.”

Carly Siegle is student teaching in the Ambridge Area School District on a hybrid basis in which half the students attend in person two days a week and the other half on two other days; all are virtual on Fridays. But it hasn’t deterred her from introducing new technology in the high-needs school district.

“I have tried to incorporate several different forms of math technology,” she said. “One of these includes Desmos, which is an online platform that can be used for a variety of different reasons in a math classroom. These activities allow students to work on an interactive activity at their own pace to help their conceptual understanding of a topic. 

“While the students are completing this activity, I am able to watch their progress and pull up the slide they are working on to help them if they are confused. This has been very beneficial in seeing and monitoring what my students at home are doing.”

Siegle said her mentor, Kent Withrow, has a strong technology background, but since his students have never had laptops or technology to complete activities, much of what she is doing is new to him. 

“The students are starting to enjoy online activities more as they adjust to using technology,” Siegle said. “At first the learning curve for the laptop and being online in general was frustrating and difficult for the students, so often times the math got lost. However, as we do more and more activities the students struggle less with the technology and can focus more on the math that they are learning.”

Withrow said giving the students exposure to manipulatives and allowing them to explore concepts is a huge benefit. “The students will naturally gravitate to the technology because of their comfort with it. I think this will also make them feel comfortable with math concepts and enhance their understanding,” he said.

“I always look forward to student teachers (such as Siegle) being in the building. They are bringing in fresh energy and perspective. They have been learning and working on current best practices. Their use of and familiarity with technology helps me become more comfortable with trying these activities.”

Siegle said the school district noticed the background knowledge she had with technology, so she was asked to help not only other teachers but teaching assistants and the secretarial staff as well in case the school had to move to all remote. 

“I also discovered Microsoft Translator and other translator options that made it easier to communicate and make accommodations for my bilingual learners,” she said. “The school felt this would be beneficial for all students to know, so they asked me to share this with them.”

Caleb Marasco is honing his teaching skills in McKeesport Area School District, which also is a high-needs district. Marasco was fortunate enough to be a part of a mid-September appearance by NBC’s Today Show, in which each junior high and senior high student were given laptops and free internet access provided by Comcast. 

“The school mentioned that so many students didn't have internet access and this was going to change their education, especially now in this hard time where schools are starting to close,” Marasco said. “The students are now able to go virtual, if needed, and they are also able to keep these laptops past high school and use them in their education or whatever they do. 

“This also gives the teachers the possibility of using more technology in the classroom, which can be extremely helpful in understanding concepts.”

Marasco said he has involved Desmos and GeoGebra for lessons. “I learned this kind of on my own and through help of other student teachers in my cohort,” he said. “I introduced the technology to my mentor; he never used the technology before but he is starting to like it. I believe he does find it effective.”

As far as the students, some enjoy the technology and some still prefer to write everything on pencil and paper, according to Marasco. “I believe the technology can be a real learning aid for them,” he said. “If the students struggle and explore why things are true, I believe they will understand more why the concepts are important. Visual learners especially like to use the technology to assist them in solving the problems.”

Robert Bell, the chairman of the mathematics department at North Allegheny High School in Wexford, appreciates technology but offered a warning: “All technology is great but we as educators have to be careful to not lose the good, old direct instruction methods that still hold up even today. I see at times educators and students only using the technology and then the SAT comes along and the first 20 questions (one-third of the test) is no calculator.”

Bell this semester is the mentor for College of Education student Nicole Benigni and has been impressed. “Nicole has been nothing but a miracle for me this year,” Bell said. “Not only the technology during instruction, she has also been a wizard with hybrid learning on our Blackboard.”

“More importantly, if we run into a problem with remote learning, she will not give up until she figures it out. I do not have the time to teach, run the math department and have problems with technology. I do not know where the kids or I would be without Nicole’s expertise.”

Expertise and experience are what the College of Education students have developed in their classrooms using technology while teaching this semester, and they’re excited about their futures. 

Marasco enjoys knowing and learning the use of technology but said because he wants to ultimately teach in a high-needs school district that free online applications are more realistic than locally stored and costly platforms.

Strickland said she encountered some technical difficulties but enjoyed the experience. “The thing I miss the most is seeing my students in person and getting to know them better,” she said. “I’ve been very excited about some lessons I put together and new ideas that I got from peers. I can’t wait to use everything that I’ve learned in my future classroom.”

Siegle also is looking forward to what awaits her when she takes her skills to her own classroom. “This experience has just been the start of trying new things and discovering new activities and I am excited to see what else will emerge as I grow as an educator,” she said.

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Last Updated December 01, 2020