Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
JiJi, an animated computer penguin, is helping elementary and middle school children improve their math scores.
When it comes to progress in math proficiency, U.S. fourth-graders made no improvement in 2008. Not so in Orange County, California. Officials there think they've found a new and innovative way to teach math, and state standardized test results back them up. Last year, over 15,000 students at 71 county elementary and middle schools in the bottom 30 percent of math achievement statewide participated in a math program where students learned math by helping an animated computer penguin named JiJi cross bridges and blast off into space. Across the state, schools saw a 4.5 percent within-grade average increase in the number of elementary students scoring "proficient" or "advanced" in math from 2007-2008 to 2008-2009. But 64 Orange County elementary schools that took part in the program saw a nearly 13 percent increase in the number of students scoring in those top levels. Developed by the nonprofit MIND Research Institute, the software uses neuroscience research to teach math using spacial-temporal reasoning -- in other words, thinking in pictures. Students in the program proceed at their own pace through lessons twice a week. They must master one game -- or learn the math -- before they can move on. The teacher supplements the game by introducing math vocabulary and symbols later in the classroom. The software provides teachers with daily feedback on student progress so that they can help anyone who is struggling, or redo a lesson if multiple students are having difficulty with a concept. Orange County's success has led to implementation of the program in Harris County, Texas, schools, where demographics and math proficiency levels are similar. In total, JiJi the Penguin is helping 118,000 students in 22 states. (Illustration: MIND's ST Math Program)