June 08, 2010

High school students learning that math can be fun

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Just hearing the word “mathematics” can send some people running for cover. But research is under way at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and other spots around the country to see if making math fun translates into better comprehension, test scores and opportunities for young people.

Another development in this groundbreaking effort, which began in 2009, takes place this summer with the arrival of three different, yet related, groups at the University. About 50 high school students and chaperones from Eldorado and from Mansfield, Ohio, will be living on campus June 14-25 in conjunction with the national “Developing Student Cohorts for the Enhancement of Mathematical Literacy” program.

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and camera crews are welcome to cover any of the three math institutes SIUC will host this summer. The Developing Student Cohorts for the Enhancement of Mathematical Literacy residential student program is June 14-25, while the Professional Development for Professional Developers training is June 20-26 and the Professional Development Program for Teachers is July 19-31. For details, times and locations, contact mathematics Professor Gregory Budzban at 618/453-6561.

The National Science Foundation distributed $3 million in grants to SIUC, The Ohio State University, University of Michigan, Occidental College and University of California Los Angeles to create a full four-year high school mathematics curriculum geared toward students performing in the lowest quartile. Eldorado was SIUC’s selected site to implement the programming and during their freshman year, students who traditionally struggle with math encountered it in a whole new way.

Leading the project at SIUC is Gregory Budzban, mathematics professor. The local group has also worked collaboratively with colleagues at Ohio State, led by Lee McEwan, mathematics associate professor and assisted by Jerzy Kocik, associate professor in mathematics at SIUC. The Ohio State group worked with students from Mansfield High School and now, the youths from Eldorado and Ohio will come together in Carbondale for a two-week, hands-on residential math literacy workshop.

“We’re taking math and turning it into projects and games the kids can have fun with. We try to make it engaging,” Budzban said.

In addition, Brett Zyromski, assistant professor and coordinator of the Professional School Counseling Program in the SIUC School of Education and Human Services, will lead life skills/career enhancement workshops for the teens.

“The idea is to get the kids thinking about where they want to be in 10 years. It’s interesting how little teens sometimes connect the choices they make in high school to where they’ll be in the future,” Budzban said.

The summer workshop wraps up year one of a multi-year program. The students will continue working with the revised math curriculum during their entire four years of high school and each summer will participate in the intensive but fun math workshops.

“We think it’s a revolutionary, radically different way of doing mathematics,” Budzban said.

Just one year into the program, Budzban said it is too soon to tell statistically how well the curriculum is working. The experience with pilot programs elsewhere suggests it usually takes at least a couple of years before researchers can really gauge the impact. When the four-year program wraps up, the fifth year of the project will be used to fully analyze what’s taken place relative to the student grades, graduation rates, college acceptance numbers and various other factors.

The program expands upon “The Algebra Project,” an organization created 25 years ago in Cambridge, Mass., by MacArthur Fellowship recipient/civil rights-era activist Robert P. Moses to help low-income minority students compete in mathematics. Moses and Budzban met in 2001 when he invited Moses to speak at SIUC and that led to Budzban’s collaboration with The Algebra Project, modifying the way high school teachers present math concepts to enhance student understanding and math scores. The idea is to accelerate learning rather than remediate it.

The Algebra Project serves a vital role in the overall scheme, encompassing the new research as well. “The Professional Development for Professional Developers” workshop June 20-26 at SIUC brings together University faculty and Algebra Project instructors from around the country to provide them with the training to become the leaders in this program. Many of the participants are those who coach the math teams in their school districts.

In addition, the Algebra Project 2010 Teacher Institute will be at SIUC July 19-21. The professional development program helps teachers from school districts participating in the Algebra Project or those with an interest in the program learn more about it and how to put it into action.

The National Science Foundation math project is certain to live on too, Budzban said. Faculty is working with Morris Library videographer Greg Wendt to create a documentary about the curriculum and program. And, Budzban said SIUC and The Ohio State University, continuing their collaborative work on the project, are seeking a $5 million Investment in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The grant would allow them to implement an expanded program with a peer mentoring aspect. So, rather than just tracking one class of students using the curriculum from their freshman through senior years, it would add students from each year’s freshman class to the program for the course of the four-year classroom cycle. The younger students would work with their older peers, learning enhanced mathematical skills from each other. This would add another layer to the work already ongoing, Budzban said.

“We intend to teach them for four years and we’ll track them as they grow and evolve as learners and hopefully leaders in their community. It would be great to be able to get the additional grant to expand and utilize the near peer element too. The whole idea behind our work is to make math interesting and real to students, helping them learn and grow in a whole new way. We’re really excited about it,” Budzban said.