You Do the Math
by Caroline Lupfer Kurtz
In UM Professor Johnny Lotts perfect world this positive attitude would be the norm. It isnt quite yet, but with the increasing use of a high school curriculum that integrates real-world math, science and technology, Lott hopes to keep students engaged in math longer and make better math thinkers out of the majority of people folks who otherwise would leave the subject behind as soon as possible.
A mathematics research professor, Lott co-directed the Systemic Initiative for Montana Mathematics and Science (SIMMS), a high school mathematics curriculum reform project funded by the National Science Foundation through the Montana Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Like the middle school reform initiative Six Through Eight Mathematics (STEM), authored by UM colleague and math Professor Rick Billstein SIMMS attempts to address the charges that U.S. students perform poorly in math and consider it largely irrelevant to their lives.
Numbers are everywhere
When you compartmentalize math, especially at the high school level, thats dangerous, Lott says. Students may miss the connections among different math skills or the point that these different skills are related at all.
As a result, he says, when students are confronted with a real-world problem that involves math, they dont know how to approach it because it is not clearly labeled an algebra problem or a geometry problem or a question of probability.
The SIMMS program tries to emphasize the relationships among topics in mathematics as well as between math and other disciplines. An award-winning module titled AIDS: The Preventable Epidemic in the level-one course, for example, uses information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to demonstrate death rates and probabilities of contracting the disease. It reflects the projects goal of helping students use math to make better decisions, Lott says.
Other modules in the first two levels, required for ninth and 10th graders, include such contexts as population growth, manufacturing, pyramid building, small business inventory, genetics and the allotment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. These modules teach principles of data collection, presentation and interpretation; linear, exponential and step equations; three-dimensional geometry; and trigonometric ratios and algebra.
On more open-ended questions, SIMMS students showed superior skills in problem solving and communicating mathematical ideas, used a wider variety of problem-solving strategies and used appropriate technology, Lott says.
Last year Lott and other faculty members conducted their own study of entering UM freshmen students who had taken the SIMMS curriculum in high school to see what effect this had on the college-level mathematics courses they placed into or chose. Results showed that among students who excel in math there is little difference whether they took SIMMS or a traditional course and that students who passed SIMMS with an A or B did well in their college classes. However, people for whom math is hard find SIMMS helps them succeed better.
You expect students in a modeling-based curriculum like SIMMS to do better with problem solving, mathematics doctoral student Terry Souhrada says. The surprising part is that they do as well as students in other types of classes on the standardized tests. SIMMS students are not losing anything, but they are gaining new skills.
Souhrada is completing his dissertation prior to teaching two math classes for educators this fall at UM. His longitudinal study of students and teachers at a western Montana high school evaluates the performances of students in SIMMS and non-SIMMS classes and their attitudes about mathematics in general.
Hopefully, well see some information [from this study] that will lead us to the conclusion that one method is better than another, he says.
Masters student James Barta is studying another aspect of the SIMMS approach, which is whether this type of reform curriculum helps keep students considered at greater risk for dropping out of math girls and American Indians engaged in math longer. So far, it appears that SIMMS has no negative effect on either group, but, as Lott says, the factors at work in keeping some students in math or in school in general go far beyond just curriculum.
Do the math
Lott now is turning his attention toward the public perception of math in general. As part of an effort led by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Action Council on Minorities in Engineering and the WidmeyerBaker Group in Washington, D.C., Lott has been working on ways to get parents involved in helping children with math, not just in their homework assignments but by talking about the uses of math in the home, at work and at play. He is busy writing problems that families of middle schoolers would encounter at home, for example, whose solution involves math. These problems may eventually end up on milk cartons, grocery bags and other familiar places.
The idea is to change the way society perceives the importance of math, Lott says. Kids like numbers when they start school, but somewhere it starts to fall apart. Why?
Part of it has to do with public attitudes, Lott believes. Too often, he says, kids get the message that adults think its OK not to understand or use math because they never did either. A coordinated media campaign is an effort to turn this self-perpetuating aversion around and get people to do the math.
Were trying to reach out on every front, Lott says. Its
got to be a well-rounded effort.