You are here


Curriculum Update

Research, trends and developments

Math Class Difficulty Increases Exponentially in Virginia

How do you teach students who have run out of math courses? That's what educators in Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools have been pondering.

The "issue" first surfaced in the mid-'80s when a handful of students started algebra a year early and finished AP calculus in their junior year. Since an American University professor had videotaped a multivariable calculus/matrix algebra course, the students watched the tapes and had their papers and tests graded by professors at George Mason University. "It was pretty informal since there were so few kids," says Frank Atchison, K-12 math coordinator for FCPS. "But we had to offer something to keep these kids going. Math was their passion."

By 2002, 160 students from FCPS' 25 high schools were ready for the advanced-level course. The district switched to a distance-learning model to accommodate the increasing amount of students, and although this method has been an improvement, it hasn't been ideal. "Only 45 percent of the students eligible have taken it," says Atchison. "Other students chose AP computer science or statistics instead. We think it's because there's no face-to-face instruction."

To keep the math-savvy students from veering off track, Atchison's team partnered with George Mason University and came up with a plan. Starting last month, FCPS is paying for 20 of its math teachers to take courses at George Mason. By next spring, they'll have completed four courses and will teach multivariable calculus/matrix algebra. The district will open 12 sections of the class in 12 different schools and has promised financial support to hire part-time instructors to teach the courses these teachers will give up. "The county has been terrific in helping us," says Atchison.

Cathy L. Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, says that a few districts are working with local universities to offer different options and applauds the fact that, in this era of math-teacher shortages, this district has found a new way to address that. "It's a challenge to find qualified teachers and adequate district support and it sounds like this district has both."

Robotics: The 4th R?

"If we're going to keep our innovation engine cooking, we need to inspire more children to pursue science, engineering and technology," says Robin Shoop, a 30-year teaching veteran at Pittsburgh Public Schools and educational outreach advisor for the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Shoop hopes to encourage budding scientists through the robotics curriculum he is developing.

The curriculum, co-developed by the Robotics Institute and LEGO Education, teaches concepts in math, science, technology and communication. "Instead of having kids memorize math, they do math," says Shoop. "When you give them a robot and ask them to program it to go forward one meter, students have a reason to measure. They learn ratios, proportions and geometry by applying it." The curriculum also includes projects like getting robots to communicate using Bluetooth technology.

Professional development, offered in-person or online, will help teachers become comfortable using the hardware, software and curriculum.

In James Jones' technology engineering classes at Timbercreek High School in Orlando, students use LEGO Mindstorms to develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Jones trains other teachers how to apply robotics to their classes, too. "A language-arts teacher asked her students to build robots and write technical descriptions of how to put them together. There's a whole gauntlet of things you can do to make it cross curricular."

Jones' lessons also focus on teamwork and partnerships. "The ability to work on a team is a cornerstone of most corporate engineering careers. My classes model the real word.",

Using iPods to Improve Learning

In 2002, the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District in Dallas began the Beyond Hardware Initiative, where students use "leisure technology" (PlayStations, MP3 players) to learn math, vocabulary and English. Three years later, standardized test scores of BHI fourth graders were higher than their non-BHI peers in reading and math. District Administration spoke with Andy Berning, the district's chief technology officer, about the program.

Q:What does "Beyond Hardware" mean?

A:Research has shown that teachers have typically underutilized computers, so we wanted to focus on training that was based on instructional needs of teachers instead of on classroom hardware.

Q:How did you choose the products?

A:The general philosophy was to find tools that the kids like and get them hooked on them, using our curriculum. We knew students would take PlayStations and MP3 players home and spend more time on task, possibly with their parents, and everyone would win.

Q:You started with PlayStations to improve math skills and moved on to MP3 players for ESL students. What came next?

A:Kindergarteners take home iPods and work on reading and other skills. Our next step is to use iPods for high-school foreign language instruction.

Bring Marine Life Indoors

David Vaughan teaches high-school science at the Waynflete School in Portland, Maine. Although he's had an aquarium in his class for the 20 years he's taught science, he just bought a Touch Tank this year. Already, he says it's made a world of difference for his students. "The Touch Tank is lower and wider so students can lean over it and take organisms out," he says. His students check out the Touch Tank every single day, which wasn't the case with the former aquarium. "Right now we have two male lobsters jousting with each other," says Vaughan. "We read a book about lobster behavior and witnessed it firsthand."

What is a Touch Tank?

A Touch Tank is a movable acrylic aquarium that can last up to 20 years. The tank's design allows teachers to recreate sea life to a remarkable degree of accuracy. Teachers can stock it with crabs, oysters, sea cucumbers, sea stars, sand dollars, periwinkles, mussels, hermit crabs, crayfish and other species that dwell in lakes, rivers and coastal waters.