Taos-based company prompts students to think of math outside the box

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Students nationwide often question their teachers about how math skills will be relevant in their future. Now, one Taos-based company is trying to change how students view the age-old homework headache.

Rather than spending all night on homework problems trying to figure out how many glasses of lemonade Jimmy can make out of six lemons, MidSchoolMath creates programs the likes of its "Empires" game lesson. In that lesson, students learn to build their own virtual village. For example, while building a bridge in the game, if the student enters a wrong answer, a message pops across the screen as if the villagers tried to complete the bridge with the wrong measurements. On the other hand, if the student enters a correct value for the problem, an animation takes the viewer away from the math problem and features the villagers fitting the bridge angles correctly in place.

MidSchoolMath has taken on the challenge of solving what its employees call "middle school's greatest problem" by re-evaluating how students learn math from grades five to eight. The company's new program relies on visual media aids, video game situations and trial and error tactics for learning math problems rather than reciting the same word problems out of textbooks. With a staff of more than a dozen creative minds in Taos, MidSchoolMath is reaching out to students nationwide to make their math learning experience fun, engaging and memorable.

"I remember in fifth grade getting 30 of the exact same problems of long division and that was horrible, painful stuff," said MidSchoolMath founder and CEO Scott Laidlaw. "I think that's part of the reasoning for trying to do something different for me.

The company started out as a couch conversation in 2009 between friends. Laidlaw and Jennifer Lightwood, co-founder and chief financial officer, quickly transformed their talents into what they believe to be the best solution to middle school math woes.

As a former math teacher, Laidlaw understands the need for students to have an alternative method of learning math and said he personally witnessed the middle school math drop-off problem. According to Laidlaw and Lightwood, students' final top-performing year for math is in the fourth grade and they see a sharp decrease in performance after that. They chose to focus on the middle school demographic to get them focused and engaged in math with a better concept of the applications of math. After nearly eight years of preparations and grants, the team has representation in 42 states and Canada with its programs.

MidSchoolMath works by giving students the problem and integrating the information via live-action footage and video game scenarios in which the students must work to figure out the solution. The lessons are themed in history, space exploration and other entertaining themes specifically designed for each grade level. The crew has hired actors, animators, script writers and others to make lessons come to life and tries to hire locally around Taos if possible. In some lessons, the problem is introduced via a short video featuring characters and animations and is then followed with the result of the equation as students apply their skills to a realistic situation.

"The first step is actually throwing out what doesn't work and most people hold on to it," said Lightwood. "Publishing companies might put [their program] online and think it's different because it's on a shiny tech device, but what happens is it never changes how [the material] is taught."

Common computer-based math programs are just re-creations of text book math problems transferred to a computer. MidSchoolMath's approach is more interactive and purposeful, said Laidlaw and Lightwood. Some of the lessons include solving engineering problems to build a village or helping an astronaut survive a Martian adventure.

While building recognition across the country, MidSchoolMath is constantly updating its material and working on new projects for students. The company has been awarded several grants to continue its work and research and in 2016 won a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. This most recent grant is assisting the company with the creation of what its leaders call their "Math Simulator," which Laidlaw says can be compared to a flight simulator in the sense that it gives students the experience of answering a problem incorrectly and allows them to see the resulting visual outcome of the wrong answer and adapt to arrive at the correct answer.

"The concept of Math Simulator is to see the output of our mathematics," said Laidlaw. "When we enter the equations or numbers, we need to visually see what would happen. If it results in failure, that's a good thing; it allows us to then change our approach to the problem."

The co-founders want to incorporate their program into schools in Taos, but have been unsuccessful so far. Taos Middle School and Anansi Day School did not return calls seeking comment about the MidSchoolMath program. Schools as far as California and New Jersey have adopted the program, according to Laidlaw, and they are hopeful for getting the program into Taos schools. Since 2009, the team has been able to upload new lessons and projects to schools that use them almost the instant they have been completed.

"I started to reflect on how long of a road it's been," said Lightwood.

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