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Unlocking the Power of Math Through Inclusive Design and Executive Function Training: The MathicSTEAM Story

By: EF+Math Program

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The second installation in our EF+Math blog series is a feature on one of our incredible project teams, MathicSTEAM.


Introduction to MathicSTEAM 


As we announced in our opening blog of this series, MathicSTEAM is one of three teams in the EF+Math portfolio that will be continuing to develop and study our core hypothesis. The EF+Math program is investigating the big idea that the integration of EF skill development in math learning approaches that address conceptual understanding and complex problem solving, in ways that afford equitable experiences in math learning, can dramatically increase students’ math outcomes. Each of the advancing teams is uniquely addressing the intersection of executive function (EF), mathematics, and equity; the learnings from each team’s approach contribute to testing EF+Math’s hypothesis and inform continued research and development in this intersection. 

The visual below may be helpful in understanding the complementary nature of each approach in the EF+Math Program’s portfolio



As part of the EF+Math portfolio, the MathicSTEAM project from MIND Research Institute is leveraging new ways to support elementary students’ development of strong mathematical foundations. By blending cutting-edge research on executive function skills with innovative instructional approaches developed through inclusive co-design processes, MathicSTEAM aims to equip all students with the skills needed to engage deeply in rigorous mathematics. Since the launch of EF+Math, this team has been an integral part of our work around the connections between executive functions and math learning, and the power of equity-centered inclusive research and development (inclusive R&D) processes. 


The MathicSTEAM Project Overview


The MathicSTEAM Project originated from the idea that all students should have access to math learning experiences that emphasize their brilliance, develop student agency, and foster cognitive development. In their first three years with the EF+Math Program, the MathicSTEAM project team worked to iteratively design and test the efficacy of a fraction curriculum for fourth and fifth grade students. This curriculum embedded executive function skill training within problem-based learning activities that aimed to show students how mathematics was useful in their lives. Findings from several pilot studies showed that students who participated in the four-week fraction unit increased their performance on fraction knowledge assessments, compared to students who did not use that curriculum. Much of this curriculum is now a part of MIND Research’s new InsightMath core offering


What truly sets MathicSTEAM apart is its integration of direct executive function training tailored to the mathematical concepts being taught. Executive function skills like working memory and inhibitory control are critical for math learning success. All students have these cognitive capacities but need to be supported in learning how to use them effectively in doing mathematics.


The Promise of Fluency+ and the Critical Issue it Addresses


In the current phase of their work, the MathicSTEAM team has focused their efforts on one portion of their curriculum which attends to explicit executive function development: Fluency+. Fluency+ combines adaptive math fact fluency instruction with research-based executive function development in their digital game system; each game focuses on building mastery of skills from an asset-based perspective which centers student agency as learners. Students build skills like working memory by remembering patterns in math puzzles, while inhibitory control games help them practice setting aside distracting information. Preliminary results from a small Fluency+ pilot are already demonstrating the potential impact. Fourth and fifth grade students showed significant improvements in math fact fluency – a key predictor of future achievement – and their executive function skills like working memory after just three weeks of using the app.


“To see gains in both math and cognitive areas from a relatively short intervention is promising,” said Dr. Martin Buschkuehl, Principal Investigator of the project. “The more we can integrate EF supports directly into math instruction, the more we can proactively equip students with the mental tools to deeply engage with mathematics.” This is the core of what EF+Math is designed to investigate and understand: how can embedding EF skill strengthening opportunities within high-quality math instruction improve math outcomes? Executive Functions, Mathematics, and Equity: A Primer provides more background on the foundation of the work. 

Try out a game here

Further, focusing on math fact fluency – an area elementary teachers consistently identify as a persistent challenge – provides executive function support within a critical context. “When you talk to teachers, they get excited about a tool that can effectively support fluency in a way that engages students,” said Buschkuehl. “Many existing products miss crucial links to developing cognitive skills and equitable learning opportunities.” The MathicSTEAM team believes that all students should have the opportunity to engage in rich conceptually-oriented math learning, and that fluency and conceptual understanding should be developed simultaneously, not sequentially. Fluency+ is a tool that allows all students to strengthen their math fact fluency via a supplemental, individualized tool that can accompany a conceptually-driven curriculum. This innovative approach represents a shift from more deficit-minded remediation models common in “math fact fluency” products on the market today. 


The Impact of Inclusive Research & Development Processes 

Beyond its innovative student-facing components, MathicSTEAM is also establishing new ways to center equity in edtech design through its Inclusive Research and Development model. From the outset, the team partnered with students, families, and educators in co-design processes to ensure MathicSTEAM resonates with the lived experiences of Black and brown students, and all students experiencing poverty. “Inclusive research and development is imperative,” said Luis Torres, an EF+Math Educator Leadership Council member who participated in MathicSTEAM’s co-design process. “To create products that allow our Black and brown students to thrive, we need to bring their communities and diverse educators to the table throughout the design process. The MathicSTEAM team took that feedback seriously and integrated many thoughtful suggestions, like incorporating more inclusive avatars and highlighting accomplished mathematicians of color in their materials. This type of authentic partnership is vital for developing math learning experiences that resonate with all students.”

This commitment to equity-centered design isn’t just shaping the MathicSTEAM product – it’s shifting organizational mindsets at MIND Research Institute. Inspired by EF+Math’s focus on equity, MIND launched company-wide equity trainings, and even created leadership roles dedicated to infusing equity into all levels of its work.

We see this through the outcome of this new approach to math in Fluency+ and their new curriculum, InsightMath, highlighting the positive impact of Inclusive R&D and new mindsets around math learning. 



What’s Next?


As the MathicSTEAM team enters the next research and development phase, they’re eager to further validate Fluency+ through larger implementation studies in partnership with EF+Math’s evaluation partner American Institutes for Research, and its district partners.  With the launch of InsightMath, a new K-6 curriculum infused with research-backed practices carried out in partnership with EF+Math, they hope to build students’ problem-solving abilities and deepen their mathematical understanding. We know that building strong math skills and an engaged problem-solving mindset is vital for opening doors to future opportunities. By merging insights from learning science with deep community partnerships, MathicSTEAM is developing new ways to put that mathematical power in the hands of all students – and cultivating the problem solvers of tomorrow. 


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