Big Sky Science
__________ MATHEMATICS __________
Rick Billstein has a dream: that every U.S. middle
To that end, Billstein has landed about $4.7 million in new funding to update and disseminate the innovative math curriculum designed by him and his UM colleagues with input from many of the nation's best math teachers. The four years of fresh funding comes from the National Science Foundation, Billstein's book publisher and other sources.
Billstein says, "When they are learning math in the classroom, kids say, 'Are we ever going to use this stuff?' Our system puts math into context and it teaches them using something they are familiar with."
Billstein's system is called MATH Thematics, which is designed to be an exciting, effective way to teach math to middle-school students. With U.S. students consistently lagging behind their international counterparts in math test scores, Billstein landed a $3.5 million, five-year grant in the early 1990s to develop a better way to teach kids the subject.
Originally titled STEM (Sixth Through Eighth Mathematics), MATH Thematics was field tested with 35,000 students around the country and written with contributions from top math educators. Billstein and lead writer Jim Williamson, a UM math adjunct assistant professor, spearheaded the group that distilled all this information into a new curriculum, which was published by McDougal Littell in 1998. MATH Thematics is now used locally in Missoula, as well as in all 50 states and by U.S. Department of Defense schools worldwide.
"The impact UM has had teaching mathematics nationally and internationally has been unbelievable," Billstein says.
MATH Thematics snags the attention of middle school students with full-color graphics and photographs, as well as engaging writing and dramatic problems. In one seventh-grade module, for example, students must use their math skills to find and rescue fictional kids whose plane has gone down. By the end of the lesson the students have learned to measure angles, do compass headings, plot a pilot's course and read contour maps. Students get excited about learning math when confronted with practical examples that demonstrate math's many uses - even saving lives.
Billstein says MATH Thematics is a move toward giving students the skills to figure out problems themselves and a move away from multiple-choice tests and rote memorization of formulas.
Since it has gone into use, MATH Thematics has earned high marks in professional evaluations. Project 2061, for example, which recently completed the most thorough and rigorous study of math textbooks in the Unites States, listed MATH Thematics among only four series with satisfactory curricula. When it was being tested, students using MATH Thematics significantly outperformed control groups not using the series.
Much of the new funding Billstein has garnered -- about $3.9 million -- will be used to revise and update MATH Thematics. The effectiveness of the series will be re-evaluated, student and teacher materials will be brought up to date in regard to advances in technology, a workable set of parent materials will be added to the program, and new materials will be designed for students with special needs. More multicultural materials also will be included, and the entire series will be made to conform with the new Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, which were designed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Billstein also has landed another NSF grant worth $825,000 to fund a satellite center of the Show-Me Project at UM. Headquartered at the University of Missouri-Columbia, the Show-Me Project works to reform and update middle-school math curricula nationally with the use of more standards-based material. MATH Thematics is one of four curricula alternatives promoted by the project.
Show-Me officials estimate that about 4,000 school districts now use some form of the materials they promote, but this represents less than a quarter of all U.S. school districts, so more effort in this area is needed. In the past the project has been widely recognized for its curriculum showcases and informative Web site.
Billstein says the new MATH Thematics and Show-Me grants, funding for which started in September, have positioned UM to play a major role in how mathematics is taught in U.S. schools. He and his math department colleague Professor Johnny Lott already have had a huge impact by co-authoring "A Problem Solving Approach to Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers," the best-selling book in its field since 1980. The book is in its seventh edition, and an eighth edition is coming out next year.
A Billings native, the 58-year-old Billstein is a UM graduate who has taught at the University for more than 30 years. He is co-author of 22 books and has written more than 50 articles for prominent teachers' journals.
-BY CARY SHIMEK