October 08, 2008

Project will improve high school math skills

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- High schools across Southern Illinois have a chance to participate in a groundbreaking effort led by Southern Illinois University Carbondale to vastly improve the mathematical performance of their lowest-performing students.

SIUC is one of a handful of sites selected nationally to create and test a new high school curriculum aimed at helping these students prepare for college-level mathematics by challenging them with higher-level work.

The University will play host to high school teachers, administrators and others at a gathering later this month.

SIUC mathematics Professor Gregory Budzban is working on the next stage of a national math literacy program in collaboration with “The Algebra Project,” an effort he began at the University several years ago. The Algebra Project is an organization begun by civil rights-era activist Robert P. Moses to help low-income minority students compete in mathematics. Budzban and Moses met in 2001 when he invited Moses to speak at SIUC. The two have continued to collaborate ever since and Moses will speak at the upcoming event.

The latest grant of $3 million from the National Science Foundation will send $645,000 to SIUC and team its researchers with counterparts from The Ohio State University, University of Michigan, Occidental College and University of California Los Angeles. The schools will then integrate the new curriculum at local high schools in each area.

The effort seeks to create a full, four-year high school mathematics curriculum aimed at students performing in the lowest quartile. Budzban is working with SIUC colleagues Jerzy Kocik, associate professor of mathematics, and Susanne Ashby, research project specialist in the College of Education and Human Services, to create portions of the curriculum and organize summer workshops for students in the program. All three are principal investigators on the grant.

Ashby said she will act in a supporting role, focusing primarily on a summer mathematics program the students will attend at SIUC each year during the program.

“I’m very enthusiastic about it because I so believe in grassroots efforts like this one,” Asbhy said. “We can’t wait on the federal government to make improvements in math education. We need to never be satisfied with the status quo. We can do a better job for our students -- all our students.”

This latest effort will kick off with a workshop for all interested Southern Illinois administrators and teachers, who will learn more about how their students can benefit from participating in the project. The event is set for Oct. 18 at the Dunn-Richmond Economic Development Center, 150 E. Pleasant Hill Road, in Carbondale.

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and camera crews are welcome to attend the Oct. 18 workshop at SIUC’s Dunn-Richmond Economic Development Center. For more information, contact Budzban at 618/453-6561.

The program calls for the researchers at the four universities to “adopt” a local high school where they will integrate the curriculum. SIUC will select the high school to work with this spring from those located south of Interstate 64 that apply.

Researchers will train that high school’s teachers in the first two years of the curriculum this summer. At the same time, researchers will complete work on the final two years of the curriculum.

The freshman class entering the adopted high school in fall 2009 will be eligible for the program at the high school chosen. The researchers will then track the students’ performance for four years, with the goal of not just bringing them up to an average level but having them excel.

Moses, who organized civil rights efforts in Mississippi during the 1960s, studied at Harvard University and later taught high school in Jackson, Miss. He considered higher mathematics a "gatekeeper" issue that could open or close doors on a vast number of career fields. His views prompted him to create The Algebra Project, which modified the approach junior high school teachers take to math concepts to make them translate better to higher math.

While the original project started by Moses was aimed at minority students, Budzban said its concepts apply to all students who may struggle with math.

“In the past, what people have tried to do is remediate these students, while The Algebra Project’s philosophy is to instead accelerate these students,” Budzban said. “You have to inspire the students, and the remedial work has shown over and over again it doesn’t inspire the students to go out and want to learn mathematics.”

Budzban said the goals include having the students excel on state tests and national college entrance exams, as well as getting them into a four-year school of their choice prepared for college-level math without remediation.

The idea involves creating a curriculum based on current research problems in mathematics; that is, difficult, complex problems that are currently challenging the brightest mathematics scholars in the world, Budzban explained.

One of the new curriculum modules Budzban created during an earlier stage of the program involved a problem -- just solved in 2008 -- of synchronizing a large binary network. The problem, known as “The Road Coloring Problem,” teaches students to solve the problem for a small network while pulling out the interesting mathematics involved for analysis. An earlier grant of $700,000 from the NSF paid for the work, which paired Moses and Budzban.

In addition to classroom teachers, the exercise used peer instructors, only a year or two older than the students, and put purpose to the mathematics, inspiring young learners to want to know more, Budzban said.

“It doesn’t just have them solve a research problem,” he said. “It shows them there are interesting mathematical ideas in the stuff they’re doing. It’s just a way to motivate the students to do something that they need to do anyway,” to progress in mathematics.