The education sector around the world has made a concerted effort to build more thoughtful STEM curricula and school activities that are inclusive for girls and, more specifically, girls of color. Yet, even with more focus on programs, STEM lacks some long-term appeal to attract young women and even young men to STEM-based careers.
For MIT graduate and former educator Anurupa Ganguly, part of the problem of the STEM gap may lie in improving mathematical concepts in a spatial context to encourage greater numbers of students to understand and maintain essential concepts.
After witnessing a downturn in STEM activity by fellow students in college, Ganguly recognized a key factor behind the development. Many students were discouraged by learning models that focused on reproducing memorization rather than creating and contributing knowledge. She brought that enlightenment into her teaching career and soon realized that teachers and administrators lacked the tools needed to build learning models that would foster mindsets and confident student learning.
Surgically and methodically, Ganguly examined and examined key indicators of success in post-secondary STEM. Spatial thinking (rotating 3D objects in the mind) and abstract reasoning emerged as prominent themes. With the advancement in current technology, she quickly realized that the tools for this type of learning could be produced on a large scale.
These efforts led to her becoming the founder and CEO of Prisms of Reality (Prisms), a virtual reality (VR) platform that provides math education through movement, experience, and meaningful discovery. Her new approach is quickly gaining friends and clients in the industry as she and her team challenge conventional approaches to mathematical experience.
Mathematical proficiency is a major reason for withdrawal in STEM activities, and Prisms provides learning focused on how our brains are wired experientially. Using 3D teaching methods based on spatial and physical abstraction, the methodology aligns with students’ life experiences for increased proficiency and understanding.
Adhering to best practices pedagogy, Prisms also uses immersive, tactile environments that add real problem solving and personalized learning with powerful analytics for the educator.
This reporter enjoyed spending time with Anurupa Ganguly in an interview for a podcast episode about her intriguing approach to math learning. While much was shared during the podcast, the following interview represents even more insight from our handover conversation.
Rod Berger: Historically, what is it with the math curriculum and stakes that creates a wake of opportunity for Prisms and other providers seeking to disrupt the “institution” of math education?
Anurupa Ganguly: First, let’s be clear about the heartbreaking results that the United States math education institution has delivered over many decades. Only a third of U.S. students achieve elementary math – this number drops to less than 1 in 5 for students living in poverty.
One study found that only 4% of U.S. 9th graders actually earn a STEM degree from a college or university, let alone the percentage who enroll in a STEM career.
While I was pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering at MIT, it was mostly a disappearing act for female aspiring engineers and engineers of color in my program. We know that these statistics do not reflect the enormous latent talent in our country, so we have to ask ourselves, “What is the cause of these unacceptable results?”
First, how many times have we heard our students ask, “Why do I need to learn this?” Secondary math programs have produced mostly sterile curricula that separated students’ math education from their own humanity and typically inherent desire to work on the world’s biggest problems. The world’s most important problems require extraordinary mathematicians, engineers, scientists and other technical experts to solve them.
Second, American math has become scattered in the levers we’ve pulled to improve over time. We have not focused on what learning science tells us about the cognitive processes that drive postsecondary outcomes in math and STEM. Those processes are the ability to reason spatially and the ability to reason abstractly.
Other countries have made dramatic progress in applying what we know from research into the drivers of strong academic and career outcomes, and so can we.
In the same vein, we also know how best students learn math through experiential learning. I like to paraphrase Albert Einstein, who stated that his mathematical thinking was “muscular” and that although he would forget the information he was told, he learned much from his experiences.
In mathematics education, we adopt an experiential, physical approach to learning when children are young, but this declines tragically in upper primary and secondary education. But it doesn’t have to be.
Berger: If the adoption of technologies like Prisms becomes commonplace, how will the teaching profession have to adapt to “meet” students in the world you and others have opened up?
common: We already see that prisms have a huge impact on the work and experience of our teachers, but we think it’s important to frame the teacher’s journey here. It’s not about kicking and screaming teachers into a new era; it’s not about overcoming resistance. Instead, it’s about empowering educators to do what they signed up to: provide a world-class learning experience that allows students to unlock their potential and pursue their wildest dreams.
At Prisms, most of us are former STEM educators and administrators – we recognize that teachers will always be one of the key drivers of student outcomes. The opportunity Prisms offers teachers is to finally be equipped with an approach that scales best-practice teaching methodologies after years of being expected to build castles of learning without adequate resources.
Yes, teachers will need to retrain their skills to make this reality commonplace. They need a basic understanding of virtual reality hardware and classroom integration, and a deep understanding of the underlying pedagogy. They need the training to turn a powerful learning experience in VR into a classroom discourse that’s just as powerful from the headset.
But everything is doable and even joyful if the will is there. We’ve seen it in abundance in our biggest title I to our smallest rural districts.
To quote one of our 30-year-old experienced teachers in Ohio, “I have the enthusiasm and excitement of a green freshman teacher. Where have you been all my life?”
Berger: Mathematics education was something that students went through – what are the opportunities for young people in a world that Prisms already has and is building?
common: We foresee a dramatic re-engagement of our students in their education. Our students, many of whom are first-time students, will find a deep sense of purpose in their math education and in their lives.
Anurupa Ganguly recognizes that exceptional mathematicians, engineers, scientists and other technical experts are needed to solve problems worldwide. But finding the candidates to meet the challenges could come from a shift in STEM education that better integrates the importance of spatial reasoning and abstraction into the overall learning process.
With the US lagging behind other countries in math, it makes sense that new technology-based VR advances in learning could provide a necessary boost to a stagnant field in search of answers.
Anurupa Ganguly is not waiting for the establishment to find out. She sees you in a classroom, boardroom or virtual room. And she will be in charge.
The interviews have been edited and abbreviated for clarity.