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High-tech desks help kids do better at math


November 26, 2012

Students using the SynergyNet project's NumberNet desks

Students using the SynergyNet project's NumberNet desks

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Mathematics has always been one of those subjects that poses a lot of difficulties for some young students. In the 3-year SynergyNet project conducted by Britain’s Durham University, however, it was found that something might help – multi-user multi-touch networked desks.

The study involved over 400 children at 12 schools, most of whom were between eight and ten years old. The NumberNet desks used by some are capable of responding to touch-based commands from several users at once, via vision systems that detect infrared light. These desks allow groups of pupils to work together to solve arithmetic problems.

The teacher views live feeds from all the desks, and can intervene if they see that a group of students is going about solving their equation the wrong way. They can also send new problems out to specific groups, send one group’s work to another for review, or bring it up onto the main smartboard at the front of the classroom for discussion.

It was found that 45 percent of the students using the desks increased the number of unique mathematical expressions they created since the beginning of the project, while only 16 percent of students working on traditional paper saw the same sort of increase.

“Our aim was to encourage far higher levels of active student engagement, where knowledge is obtained by sharing, problem-solving and creating, rather than by passive listening,” said lead researcher Prof. Liz Burd. “This classroom enables both active engagement and equal access. We found our tables encouraged students to collaborate more effectively.”

Don’t expect such technology in a school near you just yet, though. Although the scientists have seen improvements since their project began, they note that the NumberNet system is still quite expensive to set up, and requires a great deal of technical support.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Learning and Instruction.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Already they can't write. Their reading skills are tanking. Even if an electronic table could actually help them add and subtract (without making them go blind in the process), what would be the point?


Wow learning to use a calculator is the same as learning to do math.


As a teacher I have observed that technology enhances the learning process and opens up opportunities and understandings, particularly to students from disadvantages backgrounds and those with complex learning disorders. Eddie, the can read and write. Only a very small percentage 'can't'. Usually there are significant contributory reasons why a student has difficulty with reading and writing, including severe childhood illness, family breakdown (which is much more common these days then 30 years ago) and other issues which truncate school participation.

Slowburn. No, obviously learning to use a calculator isnot the same as doing Mathematics. However, technology is an integral part of many technologically based professions, including engineering, computer science and medicine, to name a few that require Mathematical skills. What is required is a higher level of accessibilty for students into Mathematical understanding so they can make better use of their calculators, so as to speak. This concept above sounds like it offers some promise in this respect.

Pari Gilmour
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