Michelle H. Wilkerson Joins GSE Faculty

February 16, 2017

From graphing the growth of plants over time to explaining how the smell of an orange travels across the room, Prof. Michelle H. Wilkerson, is steeped in research on how data visualization can help students learn math and science. 

“I’m really fascinated by what kids already know and how they try to tell us, and how we can make it easier for teachers to access those things they know,” Wilkerson said, adding that too often, educators make quick conclusions about a student’s level of understanding.

“Often it’s just that kids don’t know how to express it, they don’t have the right language or the right tools to show that they do know,” she said.

The question driving Wilkerson’s research: How do we build tools so students can show everything they know?

One place to begin is through storytelling. Take the case of the orange. A student standing at the back of a room peels an orange, and students in the front can smell it. The goal is to get students to explain scientifically what’s going on. 

“They can’t see it but they know it’s happening,” she said. The lesson begins with students drawing what they think is happening (the storytelling). Next, they create a stop-action animation that requires them to show how they think things happen over time. Finally, they program the simulation on a computer (the science).

“They have to think about objects and mechanistic things that are hard to understand when you’re talking about things you can’t touch or see. Over the course of the lesson, students’ scientific language builds from talking about smell, then smell particles, and that becomes molecules.”

In another lesson, students learning graphing and what happens to quantities over time by measuring the growth of plants or examining fluctuating animal populations. It starts with graphing on paper, and then moves to computer programing and simulations. 

“If we give students tools that help them do things like animate, or help them do things like set rules that say if there’s more sun then the plants will probably grow this much, then that really gives students access to showing a lot more about what they know,” Wilkerson said.

This learning process also brings up the challenge of coordinating the classroom discussion. When studying evaporation, for example, if some students focus on what happens to a puddle of water and others focus on cloud formation, how does a teacher frame and lead the discussion?

“We’ve been trying to come up with ways to not just compare but overlay the different things the students create into one simulation. Do they tell a consistent story? If not, how do we go back and think about these other factors and try to develop a model that accommodates all of the things that kids know are involved in evaporation?” Wilkerson said.

She’s finding that Berkeley is an ideal place to tackle those questions as her research complements other GSE faculty research on modeling, computational literacy, and math and science learning, and the San Francisco Bay Area K-12 public schools are open to engaging in her research.

“I’m excited to work with really big and diverse school districts where there’s such a rich after school and outreach community,” she said.

Wilkerson’s journey to math and science education is grounded in how students learn and how different tools help those ideas come to life. She is interested in finding out how everyday activities – like sketching or storytelling – can serve as an introduction to powerful activities like programming that are becoming important in science and mathematics.

“I was programming really early. I would build games for my little sister to teach her multiplication on an Amiga basic computer. It was always expressive. It was one of the only things I liked to play around with,” she said.

Wilkerson was 7 years old. Her sister was 3. “She wasn’t even old enough to really play it. The flashcard program showed her randomized numbers, giving her simple addition, what is this number plus another number. That’s how I learned programming.”

In college, she wasn’t even particularly fond of math.

“There’s math where you’re computing and doing numbers and then there’s math where you’re doing proofs; and because I had been programming for so long, math using numbers seemed silly because I could just program my computer to do those and I wouldn’t have do it again,” she said. “I actually didn’t like math until I got to the proof level; and it was like `Oh this is like writing a program!’”

Adding to that realization were two faculty members at the University of San Diego who supported Wilkerson’s studies and connected her with opportunities, including the summer she conducted research as a junior in college instead of working at a restaurant. It was that summer Wilkerson discovered her joy of research.

She now finds herself supporting her students in a similar way.

“You have to be explicit about the many ways one can make a difference as an educator. Students don’t always know what they want to do, or realize education doesn’t have to be only this research world or teaching,” Wilkerson said. “Just knowing what options exist helps them think about out where they see themselves and where they can use their knowledge as educators.”

Follow Professor Wilkerson's research on Twitter @Cal_coRE
Read more about Professor Wilkerson

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