To infinity and beyond: this professor makes math more dynamic for kids
Nathalie Sinclair likens doing math to reading a good novel. In her eyes, both activities offer the chance to put aside everyday matters to delve into new worlds and ideas. However, the SFU education professor is well aware that many children tend to develop lifelong bad associations with the subject early on, and she is dedicated to changing how math is taught to give young learners the chance to discover for themselves the beauty to be found in creative mathematical activity.
“I’ve been drawn to the aesthetic character of mathematics since I was a child,” says Sinclair. “It’s exciting to find analogies that explain patterns and linkages between mathematical ideas.” Upon entering university, she naturally became a math major and was thrilled to discover that mathematics was a living, growing field.
Her interest in the intersection of math and technology began during her graduate work with with Jonathan and Peter Borwein at SFU’s Centre for Experimental and Constructive Mathematics. “I saw real mathematicians doing real mathematics with computers—something that had been entirely absent from my undergraduate mathematics experiences,” she says. Around the same time, Sinclair became intrigued by mathematician and computer scientist Seymour Papert’s ideas about using computing as the centerpiece of alternative approaches to young children’s mathematical experiences. Following her PhD research, she continued to focus on using technology, especially to explore theories of embodied learning, that is, how the physical body can play a critical role alongside the intellect during the learning process.
Much of her research has been on the use of Dynamic Geometry software which allows users to construct and manipulate virtual mathematical objects as if they were physical entities, interpreting mathematical ideas of continuity and variation in a way that allows abstract ideas to become remarkably concrete. The software also offers opportunities for collaboration and discussion to further enhance learning.
Math gets physical
Embodied learning in math took on new significance for Sinclair her over a decade ago when she dramatically lost the ability to interpret letters and numbers in the wake of surgery for a brain tumor. Forced to relearn how to read and count from scratch, she found that using tactile gestures and tracing shapes with her fingers was crucial to her recovery. This experience would influence her in co-developing software that fused recent findings in educational technology, neuroscience and cognitive science, as well as her own extensive research exploring how computers can offer opportunities to visualize mathematical figures into a tangible math learning experience.
In collaboration with colleagues in Italy, New Zealand and the UK, Sinclair crystallized her research in the form of a unique iPad app called TouchCounts. Launched in 2014, the free app lets children use touchscreen technology to engage in embodied ways of counting and performing arithmetic by using finger movements and hand gestures. Touchcounts has been downloaded over 75,000 times across 10 countries, and has been translated into four European and two First Nations languages.
“In my view, university research can’t just shape the development of research-based, innovative technology,” says Sinclair. “It must also enable effective dissemination beyond journal publication into actual classrooms where real students can experiment, ask questions and delight in the wonder of mathematics.”
Q & A with Dr. Nathalie Sinclair
Dr. Nathalie Sinclair is a full professor in SFU’s Faculty of Education and a Canada Research Chair in Tangible Mathematics Learning. In 2008, she was co-recipient of the Janet Duffin award which goes to the author(s) of what is judged to be the most outstanding contribution published in the journal Research in Mathematics Education each year. She is also an associate editor of For the Learning of Mathematics and is founding editor for the journal Digital Experiences in Mathematics Education. She is author of Mathematics and Beauty: Aesthetic Approaches to Teaching Children (2006) and Mathematics and the Body: Material Entanglements in the Classroom (2014), among other books. Her primary research concerns the role of digital technologies in the teaching and learning of mathematics, focusing on multitouch devices and geometry, as well as early number sense.
What motivates you as a researcher?
Seeing children get excited by a mathematics idea. Designing new ways for mathematics to be present in the lives of young people. Engaging with the history of a topic or a term in order to influence its future.
How important is collaboration in advancing research?
Very important, given that education is a transdisciplinary activity in which multiple forms of expertise interact.
SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?
My research regularly takes me into classrooms of all levels and ages, which grounds my technological and philosophical orientations, as well as feeds back into influencing the current curriculum innovations in British Columbia and beyond.
Putting one’s work out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you find your courage?
By working with colleagues and students who challenge and reinforce my ideas, and from trying to influence the world in which my 11 year-old daughter is to be a participant.