Sitting at a kid-sized table, a trio of 4-year olds push triangles and squares together to create sailboats, bears, sharks, and pinwheels. They laugh. They talk. After all, this is a cooperative project.

The SMART Table allows children to move shapes around to create objects.
The SMART Table allows children to move shapes around to create objects such as a sailboat or a pinwheel.

But this is not just any table. The children are part of a Virginia Tech research project that uses a SMART Table™, one that allows children to manipulate shapes the same way adults flip through “apps” on their phones and touchscreen devices. Kids spin, rotate, push, and pull the pieces into the desired shape of the puzzle. The table features a multitouch capacity so that many small hands can maneuver pieces simultaneously.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the purpose of the study is “to understand how children use physical and virtual objects, called ‘manipulatives,’ in different ways to construct mathematical knowledge,” says lead researcher Michael A. Evans, assistant professor in the School of Education.

The Child Development Center for Learning and Research in Wallace Hall has been buzzing with this research over the last year. Video cameras record everything, giving researchers the the ability to see how children communicate about geometric concepts in their general conversations.

In the study, children in groups of three are invited to the SMART Table, where they are given instructions about the process. In the first puzzle, the kids can touch any shape. In the second puzzle, they only can touch a certain color but they can offer their teammates verbal suggestions. The first puzzle is referred to as “free ownership;” the second as “divided ownership.”

After a designated amount of time, the children are given hints, if needed, to help them complete the puzzle. The groups are also invited to make puzzles out of physical pieces. Again, rules apply with certain “helpers” who may only talk but not touch the actual puzzle pieces.

The research team
The research team includes, from left, Elisabeth Drechsel, a math major from Gloucester, Va.; Wei Li, a graduate student from Mainland China studying instructional design and technology in the School of Education; Assistant Professor Michael A. Evans of the School of Education's Department of Learning Sciences and Technologies; Zach Buckley, a computer science major from Leesburg, Va; Isabel Bradburn, research director for the Child Development Center for Learning and Research; and Berrin Dogusoy, a visiting scholar in instructional design and technology from Middle East Technical University in Turkey.

Preliminary results of the study indicate that children make references to mathematics, both verbally and with gestures, under the virtual conditions. "Basically, researchers examine what children are saying, where they are looking, and where they are pointing at to see if 'math talk' is developing among the children," Evans said. "We are learning that virtual interaction with shapes and positions contributes positively to children thinking about geometry in developmentally appropriate ways. Moreover, having children serve as 'helpers' is another way to get the kids to talk and gesture about mathematics."

As part of a supplemental NSF grant to bring practitioners into the research process, three of the child development center’s teachers, led by center Research Director Isabel Bradburn, are exploring how multitouch technology may be integrated with traditional manipulatives to spur mathematical learning and creative thinking.

“Our teachers are working with the research team to learn their protocols and, in turn, advise the team on ways the SMART Table applications work well or need improvement for preschoolers,” Bradburn said. “Through this iterative process the teachers are then developing curriculum based on the study concepts to use in the classrooms and later will work with team to develop ways of documenting children’s spontaneous math talk.”

Preliminary results of teachers’ explorations with the SMART Table were presented at the National Association for the Education of Young Children meeting Nov. 5, 2010, in Anaheim, Calif.

So far, the children appear to be advancing their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in these small-group, face-to-face interactions. Research team members want to find the right mix of manipulative type (physical or virtual) and social arrangement (ranging from “free” to “divided” to “single” ownership) that best promotes math talk in the classroom with the SMART Table.

The collaborative project combines technology with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and human development using students and scholars from the center, the School of Education, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering, and the Department of Mathematics in the College of Science.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Jean Elliott at (540) 231-5915.

About the center

The Child Development Center for Learning and Research  is a full-day, year-round university preschool that also serves as a research and teacher training site. Three classrooms serve up to 40 children ranging from 14 months to 5 years old.

The mission of the center, which dates back to 1940, is to provide model programs and leadership for the local, state, and national early childhood communities in teaching, research, and the service missions of the university.

Related grants

Michael A. Evans

Assistant Professor Michael A. Evans has served as principal investigator on several major awards, including a $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a multitouch tabletop for use in math education in 2007. 

That project brought together researchers from multiple disciplines (learning sciences and technologies, mathematics education, human-computer interaction, and psycholinguistics) as well as two institutions (Virginia Tech and the University of Chicago), and was the first initiative for a broader research agenda.