Worcester Polytechnic Institute Researchers Awarded Grant to Help K-12 Students Design Math Games

National Science Foundation funds work that aims to boost computational skills.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) researchers have received a $745,612 grant to develop a website that children can use to design and play math games that develop computational thinking skills.

Ivon Arroyo, associate professor in learning sciences and technologies at WPI, is principal investigator on the three-year project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Co-principal investigators at WPI are Erin Ottmar, assistant professor of learning sciences and psychology, and Gillian Smith, assistant professor in computer science and interactive media and game development.

Computational thinking is a foundation of computer programming that requires abstract thinking and involves breaking a problem into steps a computer could execute. Computational skills typically are not taught until college, but children can learn them because they naturally create and play games with complex rules that require sophisticated thinking, Arroyo said.

“Computational skills are important because they can improve access to higher-level STEM careers,” Arroyo said. “We want everybody, regardless of socioeconomic status, to have access to a skill that could pull them toward STEM careers.”

The WPI team will build on previous researchdeveloping the Wearable Learning Cloud Platform(WLCP), a website for teachers and students. Under the guidance of teachers, students use the platform to play games and create math games for other students. The games require players to physically move around and collaborate in groups while solving math problems and entering solutions into mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablets. Designing games requires users to develop computational skills, break problems into pieces, consider the players’ perspectives, and anticipate their behaviors.

More than 20 teachers and about 700 students have used the WLCP to create and play math games. Some games required students to solve problems while moving along a designated path. Other students designed games requiring players to lie on the ground to form geometric shapes, such as a parallelogram.

“A lot of what this project intends to do is get kids to move around and use their environment, but also think about abstract mathematical and computational concepts involved in game design and programming,” Ottmar said.


The researchers plan to work with more teachers and students from kindergarten to 12th grade. They will test students before and after playing games to determine whether the games improve math scores, and they will assess how students perceive themselves as programmers after making and playing games.

The researchers also will improve the WLCP website by creating tutorials for teachers and students, and by developing a library of math games created by other teachers and students.

The research team includes undergraduate students Richard Valente, Luisa Perez, Olivia Bogs, and Grace Seiche; alumnus Matthew Micciolo; graduate student Hannah Smith; and doctoral candidates Francisco Castro and Avery Harrison.

About Worcester Polytechnic Institute 
WPI, the global leader in project-based learning, is a distinctive, top-tier technological university founded in 1865 on the principle that students learn most effectively by applying the theory learned in the classroom to the practice of solving real-world problems. Recognized by the National Academy of Engineering with the 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education, WPI’s pioneering project-based curriculum engages undergraduates in solving important scientific, technological, and societal problems throughout their education and at more than 50 project centers around the world. WPI offers more than 50 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs across 14 academic departments in science, engineering, technology, business, the social sciences, and the humanities and arts. Its faculty and students pursue groundbreaking research to meet ongoing challenges in health and biotechnology; robotics and the internet of things; advanced materials and manufacturing; cyber, data, and security systems; learning science; and more. http://www.wpi.edu

Alison Duffy 
Director of Strategic Communications 
Worcester Polytechnic Institute 
Worcester, Massachusetts 
508-831-6656 (office); 508-340-5040 (cell) 
[email protected]

WPI researchers (from left) Hannah Smith, Francisco Castro, Olivia Bogs, Gillian Smith, Ivon Arroyo, Erin Ottmar, Richard Valente and Luisa Perez.

WPI researchers (from left) Hannah Smith, Francisco Castro, Olivia Bogs, Gillian Smith, Ivon Arroyo, Erin Ottmar, Richard Valente and Luisa Perez.

“Computational skills are important because they can improve access to higher-level STEM careers.” – Ivon Arroyo, Associate Professor of Learning Sciences and Technologies at WPI