All posts by Elise Levin-Guracar

MPACT Team Spotlight: Elise Levin-Güracar

By Anna Chiang, November 18, 2020

Elise Levin-Güracar is a research associate at SRI International and has been a part of the MPACT team for two years. She moved into education research after teaching 7th grade math. She received her teaching credential in secondary school math from Berkeley.

Q. What is your role on MPACT?

I worked on the pilot, where we implemented the curriculum in a summer program and last school year with a small group of teachers. Currently, I am part of the instrument development team working on creating and administering surveys and assessments.

Q. What is one thing you’ve enjoyed about this project?

I was able to observe MPACT lessons being taught by three differ

ent teachers during the pilot and I really enjoyed seeing the creativity of both the students and the tea

chers as they brought their own experiences and backgrounds to th

e design challenges.

To the right is a photo of one of the student’s projects. They desig

ned this train for a younger sibling and the wheels can turn. This final product came after a lot of planning, sketching, mathematical discussion, computer aided design (CAD), and prototyping work. The student was so proud and excited to give this toy as a gift.

Q. What is something you’re excited about doing/learning on the project?

As this curriculum is used by more teachers, I’m excited to hear about classroom implementation and learn how teachers integrate MPACT into their classrooms.

Q. What do you like about MPACT and can you share some of your experiences with MPACT?

I like that MPACT has meaningful projects for students to engage in. During the pilot, I had the opportunity to co-teach lessons during a summer program and really got to see how the project (designing a toy for someone younger) hooked the students and held their interest for the whole summer. Students were excited to learn the math and computer skills and got to immediately apply what they were learning to something they cared about.

TERC Team Spotlight: Ken Rafanan

By Anna Chiang, December 4, 2020

Q. Will you tell us a little bit about your professional background?

I develop learning activity systems that integrate teacher professional development, curriculum, assessment, and technology to support the learning of critical mathematics. I have been working in math education research for the past 16 years. Prior to working in research, I worked as a math and technology teacher at a school focusing on special education and also worked as the executive director of a youth development organization.

Q. What’s one thing you learned in developing and piloting MPACT that surprised you?

I was pleasantly surprised to learn through piloting how much enthusiasm students show for their projects. In one of our pilot classrooms, students worked on their project to design a board game during their recesses. In another class, fifth-graders debated a whole class period on whether two shapes were the same (essentially discussing the concept of chirality). We know that we are successful when we can really engage students while learning critical mathematics.

Q. What is something you’re excited about working with the MPACT Fellows on this year?

I always say that working with teachers is my second favorite part of my job (my most favorite is working with students). I am most excited to see the MPACT Fellows’ growth in how they lead their students through spatial reasoning aspects of the curriculum, and because I really like design, I can’t wait to see all the designs that the students create.

Q. What would you tell a teacher to expect out of the MPACT program this year?

You can expect the students to really work their brains. Working through a design project is different from typical math classes. The spatial reasoning involved can be really fun, but it can also take a lot of cognitive energy.

Q. How do you think MPACT will benefit teachers and students?

I think teachers will learn a lot about teaching with a different kind of curriculum and I hope that it inspires teachers to try out other projects that combine mathematics and design making. As for the students, I believe that they will enjoy the making and start to see themselves as designers and that mathematics can be fun and useful.

MPACT Team Spotlight: Ela Joshi

By Anna Chiang, February 10, 2021

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your professional background?

I am an education policy researcher at SRI International Center for Education Research and Innovation. I work on several studies that seek to inform policies and practice for students, teachers, and school leaders, including studies of innovative school models and curricula like MPACT.  Recently, I completed my Ph.D. in education policy and leadership. Prior to working in education research, I was a 5th grade teacher in Arizona.

Q. What is your role on MPACT?

I am part of the instrument development and analysis teams. I work on administering surveys and assessments as well as organizing and analyzing the data from teacher responses.

Q. Why do you think it’s important to implement MPACT in classrooms and how do you think it will benefit teachers and students?

As an elementary school teacher, it wasn’t easy to find math and science lessons and resources. In the times that a lesson went well, the joy and amazement I remember seeing in my students was unforgettable. I hope MPACT can help teachers access design-based lessons that get students’ creativity flowing and builds interest and confidence in pursuing more STEM curricula in their educational journeys.

Q. What is something you’re excited and looking forward to doing/learning on the project?

I am looking forward to learning more about teachers’ and students’ experiences with the MPACT curriculum across the diversity of schools, age groups, and school models in the study!

Teacher Spotlight: Ellie Schoelen

This Fall 5th grade teacher Ellie Schoelen was one of the small group of MPACT teacher fellows to pilot MPACT lessons in their classroom.

We caught up with Ellie this week to hear about her experiences teaching MPACT. Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. What did students think of the Soma Cube puzzle? (The Soma Cube puzzle is the intro lesson for 5th grade. It asks students to create a 3x3x3 cube out of 7 unique pieces, learn more here).

They loved the Soma Cube puzzle, even though several of them never finished it, they would request 5 more minutes to keep working on it. I would give them the Soma Cube puzzle when they were working in small groups, they kept going back to it because it was so interesting, if they did solve it , they wanted to solve it in a different way or teach someone how to do it. The puzzle was a great way to start the year and to keep them engaged literally all year. We made them each a set so they all got mini Soma Cubes to take home. 

Q. What were students’ experiences with TinkerCad?

Once students figured out the CAD they started to focus on it and made a toy for their Kindergarten book buddies for their projects. It was so cute because they’d already been really focused on their book buddies, and it was fun to watch them get excited about something that wasn’t centered around me, I wasn’t there to be the deliverer of information.

Q. Where did you use the MPACT lessons?

I used the lessons in preparation for my volume unit and to support student understanding of 3D objects. It was really nice to understand this is an easier way to understand volume in multiple ways, things fit inside something else. This year’s class understood volume better than previous years and had stronger spatial reasoning after doing the MPACT lessons.

Q. What else do you want to share about your experiences with MPACT?

What I thought was the best thing was that I got to do things that I don’t get a chance to do or don’t prioritize, like I wanted to do more hands on learning and things like that but didn’t have the exact thing that I needed to do it, so this gave me exactly what I needed. Kids thought they’re taking brain breaks but they were doing math, and they would beg me to do it more.

Chirality: What’s that? More on Spatial Reasoning

by Jennifer Knudsen, Hee-Joon Kim, Harriette Stevens, & Elise Levin-Guracar, August 1, 2019

In the MPACT program, fifth grade students are challenged to make the seven pieces of the Soma Cube puzzle. The Soma cube puzzle follows a set of rules to create seven distinct pieces that fit together into a cube. Students use linking cubes to create the seven pieces, then use TinkercadTM to model the pieces, and finally use their TinkercadTM model to 3D print the puzzle.

  • There are 7 distinct pieces made up of unit cubes
  • The pieces are made up of either 3 or 4 unit cubes.
  • All the pieces have a bend; none are straight; none are cuboids.
  • The pieces fit together to make a cube.

If you try it, you may notice there are only seven different pieces that are possible to make following the rules for Soma cube pieces.

Piece of a soma cube

On our first trial round, students got into a debate about these two pieces:

Are they the same or are they different? Students who said they were the same noted they had the same volume and had two pairs of cubes crossed.

Students who said they were different held one up to the mirror, and students could see the other piece was a mirror image that was a different shape than the original. They wouldn’t occupy the same place in the puzzle. The students settled on calling the pieces “fraternal twins.” Mathematicians and scientists call them “chiral.”

Piece of a soma cube

If you think this is only relevant to puzzles or spatial reasoning test items, think again. Notice how the two molecules below are chiral, as are our hands. One can never be superimposed exactly onto the other.

Illustration of molecules in hand
Chirality matters. There are two chiral molecules that make up the drug thalidomide. One of these molecules relieves morning sickness for pregnant women, while the other causes birth defects. The two molecules were mixed in pharmacological compounds, and a wave of birth defects resulted in the early 1960s.[1] Learning from this terrible mistake, chemists began a new line of work: chiral separation.[2]

This is the spatial reasoning and mathematical argumentation in which MPACT students engage. If you want to do this activity, you need 27 cubes per student or per pair. You can give them the requirements and have them go at it, but that is very challenging. We give students an image of four pieces already made and ask them to create those four, then the other three. Argumentation arises as students have differing opinions on whether the chiral shapes are the same or different. We also include some tasks based on classic spatial reasoning test items.

Contact us at to get more information about our curriculum and program.

[1] Uttal, D. H., & Cohen, C. A. (2012). Spatial Thinking and STEM Education. When, Why, and How? Psychology of Learning and Motivation – Advances in Research and Theory, 57, 147-181..


Images from MPACT staff member Hee-Joon Kim, Uttal & Cohen article

Spatial Thinking

by Elise Levin-Guracar, May 7, 2019

image of a hand rolling up a piece of paper

Spatial thinking involves imagining, seeing, and drawing space. This includes thinking about the location of objects, their shapes, how they transform, and what they look like in relation to other objects. Picture a flat piece of paper. Now imagine rolling it lengthwise to a tall cylinder and taping it together. In order to imagine this shape, you are using spatial thinking.

Many studies have demonstrated that spatial thinking is key for STEM success[1]. One longitudinal study followed high school students for over 11 years and found that spatial ability during adolescence were predictive of choosing a  STEM major in college and occupations in STEM fields [2].

While some people believe this ability is innate, there is overwhelming evidence that spatial reasoning and skills can be taught. One meta-analysis looked at 217 studies on spatial malleability showed that spatial skills improve through training, such as task specific practice or playing computer games. Furthermore, not only is spatial training effective in increasing students’ spatial skills, but learning gained from training is also durable and transferable to novel tasks, regardless of students’ age or gender[3].

Our project fosters spatial reasoning through designing 3D objects with both physical and digital tools. Students use an online 3D modeling tool (CAD) to rapidly prototype 3D objects to print. Students will need to move from thinking about objects that can be held in the hand, to modeled objects that can be manipulated on the screen to precisely replicate 3D objects.

In one curriculum unit, students are asked to design missing pieces of a cube puzzle by manipulating the existing puzzle pieces in both physical and digital forms, engaging them deeply with spatial reasoning. We use  Tinkercad TM as our 3D modeling tool. It allows students to select a cube, duplicate it, group the cubes to form puzzle pieces, and  rotate their view of  the pieces to see all sides of them. This is a step toward the mental rotation and “seeing” missing parts in 2D renderings of 3D shapes that are part of many spatial skills assessments.

This approach builds on findings that the use of concrete 3D objects made mental rotation tasks accessible to young children[4], but we go beyond this to hypothesize that manipulatable 2D images of 3D objects on the screen used in conjunction with a corresponding 3D print will further enhance spatial reasoning.

This first activity is only the start of developing students’ spatial thinking—the rest of our design units take students even further in this topic. More on that in our next blog post.



[1] Newcombe, N. (2010). Picture This: Increasing Math and Science Learning by Improving Spatial Thinking. American Educator, 29-43).

[2] Wai, J., Lubinski, D., & Benbow, C. P. (2009). Spatial ability for STEM domains: Aligning over 50 years of cumulative psychological knowledge solidifies its importance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(4), 817–835.

[3] Uttal, D., H., Meadow, N. G., Tipton, E., Hand, L. L., Alden, A. R., Warren, C., & Newcombe, N. S. (2013). The malleability of spatial skills: A meta-analysis of training studies.  Psychological Bulletin, 139(2), 352-402.

[4] Casey, B., Andrew, N., Schindler, H., Kersh, J. E., Samper, A., & Copley, J. (2008). The development of spatial skills through interventions involving block building activities. Cognition and Instruction26(3), 269–309.; Hawes, Z., LeFevre, J., Xu, C., and Bruce, C.(2015) Mental Rotation with Tangible Three-Dimensional Objects: A New Measure Sensitive to Developmental Differences in 4- to 8-year-old Children Mind, Brain, and Education, 9(1),10-18; Nath, S., & Szücs, D. (2014). Construction play and cognitive skills associated with the development of mathematical abilities in 7-year-old children. Learning and Instruction, 32, 73-80.

Computational Thinking

by Satabdi Basu, April 1, 2019

image of a pile of cubes

MPACT is not restricted to only math—we also address thinking skills for computer science, and spatial reasoning, a gatekeeper to STEM. Today, we’ll talk about computational thinking, an important aspect of computer science.

In today’s increasingly digital world where computing is pervasive in all spheres of life, computational thinking (CT) is considered a fundamental skill for all students, just like reading and writing. CT refers to the way humans think about setting up a problem and its solution so that a computer can do the work. Yet, CT does not need to involve a computer—it can be fostered through unplugged logical thinking and problem-solving activities. When students are engaged in CT, they could engage in any number of activities. Among them are:

  • creating models and data visualizations
  • breaking a bigger problem into smaller, easier-to-solve parts
  • creating algorithms (a series of ordered steps for solving a problem)
  • abstracting—deciding which parts of a problem are critical and which can be set aside
  • recognizing and using patterns

Our project fosters CT through unplugged mathematical puzzles and the creation of 3D digital designs using Tinkercad—an online tool for 3D modeling, the step before 3D printing. For example, before students create their own designs, they find the missing pieces in an old cube puzzle and engage in algorithmic thinking and abstraction. When students design the missing puzzle pieces in Tinkercad, they may decompose the design problem into single cubes, or clusters of cubes, and then combine them to create the missing pieces.

This initial activity is only the start of developing students’ computational thinking—the rest of our design units take students even further in this topic. More on that in an upcoming blog post.

Image by Philippa Warr and used under Creative Commons 2.0.