UD is a partner in a state grant that will provide teachers immersion in new methods to improve student learning in STEM subjects.

Learning to love math

UD partners in state grant for teacher professional development


2:55 p.m., Feb. 26, 2014--Across the country and in Delaware, students have fallen far behind in math, reading and science. 

Recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment show that among 34 developed nations, students in the U.S. rank 26th in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading.

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In Delaware — where Gov. Jack Markell was a driving force behind the development of brand-new national education standards known as Common Core — educators are trying to change that by enhancing the way teachers teach. 

The University of Delaware’s Department of Mathematical Sciences and Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center (MSERC), the Delaware Math Coalition, Delaware State University and Wilmington University were recently awarded a multiyear $1.1 million Mathematics and Science Partnership Program grant from the state Department of Education.

It will fund the Delaware K-12 Mathematics Partnership Project, which seeks to help educators in the state’s public and charter schools learn how to teach differently to engage their students in math and science in new and more effective ways.

The project includes a partnership with 15 school districts and four charter schools, represented by the math coalition, along with UD, and including advisement and input from representatives of Delaware State and Wilmington universities, according to the state education department. 

About 230 K-12 teachers, grouped in learning strands, will take part in both statewide and school-based professional learning opportunities totaling 80 hours per year, the department said.

“We have a moral imperative to close the gap,” said John Pelesko, chair of UD’s math department and co-principal investigator on the project.

Students across the country and at UD are entering college unprepared for math. Pelesko said universities incur huge costs bringing them up to speed through remedial courses, and students are at a disadvantage when beginning to prepare for careers.

“We want them to think about a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career,” said Jon Manon, the project’s other co-principal investigator and director of MSERC. “At universities across the nation, studies show students want STEM, but math becomes a huge barrier for them.”

In Delaware, Pelesko and colleagues said they are leading the charge to lower that barrier.

“We are helping students see themselves as doers of math,” said Jamila Riser, executive director of the Delaware Math Coalition.

It’s not the first time the UD partnership has been awarded such a grant, but this year, Pelesko’s department is more involved and elementary educators will also be brought into the mix. 

Earlier this year, a $230,000 state education grant was awarded, also for professional development for STEM teachers and focused on interdisciplinary collaboration

Each summer, nearly 275 Delaware teachers from most of the state’s school districts participate in the Toward a New Normal in Secondary Mathematics Instruction professional development program hosted by UD and the Delaware Math Coalition. Wilmington and Delaware State universities are new partners. 

The program is geared toward teachers at all levels of their careers and at all stages of their embrace of new standards and methods, like Common Core and problem-based learning (PBL). The focus this year is on reasoning, justification and modeling.

The program also involves five full-day professional development opportunities throughout the year. It recently included a “PBL Chat” featuring Stanford University’s Jo Boaler, known for her research into how different teaching affects student learning.

Problem-based learning is built around the concept that in the real world, there are typically not concrete problems with defined solutions. Math is applied and problems must be solved.

A goal of the project is to help teachers learn to model how math and the real world collide.

“Math is something that is meant to be used,” said Pelesko. “It’s not just algebra.”

Manon used an example of population growth in China. For years, the country had a one-child policy, which last year was relaxed to a two-child policy. It created a plethora of social issues as male children became more highly valued.

In a PBL scenario, students could be posed the question: If people were allowed to have children until they had a male child, what is the implication for the number of males and females in the population?

“They are mathematically addressing real human problems, but it’s relatively simple,” Manon said. “They see the utility, the accessibility of math, and experience the joy of sorting it out.”

Because 50 percent of the time, a baby will be a boy, students would work out there would be zero population growth.

But to get to this approach — allowing students to grapple with problems until they find solutions, engaging them in the process in a meaningful way — many teachers may need additional support to learn what works for them.

“It’s not about fixing teachers,” said Manon. “It’s about engaging strong professionals to be better teachers.”

Some are already there, while others are just getting started or have been experimenting but are continuing to build the foundation. The New Normal program, with the assistance of the grant, will serve them all.

“People at this institution have been very committed to teachers and learning in classrooms,” said Riser. “Most states don’t have this, working with teachers day-to-day.”

That’s part of what makes UD’s efforts, and those of partners around the state, unique. Many teachers with degrees from UD stay in the state, bringing their knowledge with them. It is then reinforced and enhanced through continued professional development.

The experience is immersive, both for the teachers and administrators. Riser said the idea to create a sense of community and shared responsibility for educating students.

Manon said their efforts are being evaluated by a third-party group, which is looking at teacher and student outcomes. He is optimistic they will not be futile, though he acknowledged it won’t be easy.

“It’s a hard problem; it’s an enduring problem,” he said.

At the end of the day, it’s still about the students, Riser said. And it’s not just about getting them ready for college but for preparing them for whatever comes next after high school graduation.

“It’s about changing dispositions: helping students learn to love math,” she said. “Districts have been closing achievement gaps, have moved out of critical areas, but it’s not the kind of thing you solve in a year.”

Article by Kelly April Tyrrell

Photo by Evan Krape

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