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New Approach to Teaching Math, Science Spurs Gains

Instructing teachers to use computational math and science in their lessons has led to marked student improvement in two New York districts. Dr. Osman Yasar, director of the institute that trains teachers in this approach, explains why. Included: Tips for using computational math and science in the classroom.

With the pressure on schools to improve student math and science performance, some districts are finding their communities eager to help. Since 2003, 200 teachers from the Rochester (New York) City School District and Brighton Central School District have attended training at the Computational Math, Science, and Technology (CMST) Institute at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Brockport. The university's department of computational science established the CMST Institute with the participation of eight other university departments, the two local school districts, and area businesses.

Teachers attend workshops at CMST to learn new instructional approaches that integrate math, science, and technology and how to employ computer modeling to help interest students in science and math.

The learning does not stop after the summer workshops end, though. Teachers are given some materials to use in their classrooms, and following the training, teachers are assigned coaches and advisors from among college faculty and experienced teachers. They implement CMST-based lessons during the academic year and participate with their students in the CMST Challenge Program, a chance for student and teacher teams to compete in solving real-world problems using computer modeling software. The institute also offers bi-monthly meetings for all faculty, teachers, and coaches.

Since the institute was founded two-and-a-half years ago, faculty members there have developed more than 200 CMST lesson plans for teachers who participated in the summer workshops. They also are creating lesson plans for Connected Math and Core Plus curricula in the local school districts.

In just a few years, students taught by CMST-trained teachers have shown marked improvement in their performance. The passing rate for Rochester's primary school district on the state's math exam improved from 50 percent in 2002 to 90 percent in 2004. The passing rate on the eighth grade math exam increased from 11 percent to 19 percent. Target students (taught by CMST teachers who received training for one summer) outperformed other students in a control group in almost all local state and exams by between 4 percent and 8 percent. Rochester school officials are supplementing the CMST efforts by developing a new strategic plan that stresses professional development, instructional best practices, and access to technology in teaching math and science.

Dr. Osman Yasar, director of the CMST Institute and chairman of SUNY Brockport's computational science department, recently talked with Education World about why he thinks computational math and science is crucial to helping students learn.

"By giving students' teachers the tools and education to structure their lesson plans and daily routines around computation and integrate them into the natural sciences, the classroom becomes both a place tailored to the world students live in and excites them for a world of computation they could eventually help create," says Dr. Osman Yasar, director of the CMST Institute and chairman of SUNY Brockport's computational science department.

Education World: Could you explain what computational science and computational math are?

Dr. Osman Yasar: In recent years, computational science has emerged as an academic discipline that offers a combined education in mathematics, computing, and application sciences. SUNY Brockport established the first undergraduate degree program as well as the first academic department in the country in this field. The discipline integrates computing and mathematics into natural sciences such as biology and physics through modeling and simulation. Students get a diploma in 'computational science' with a sub-specialty in computational physics, computational math, or some other subfield depending on student interest.

[Students learn] that computation is a tool to conduct scientific study (math, science, physics, economics, philosophy, etc) in a way similar to physical experimentations or theoretical investigations. It involves mathematical and computer modeling as well as visual representation of the system and data being studied. Computation can be the center of study as well.

EW:How does the instructional approach for teaching math and science taught by the Computational Math, Science, and Technology (CMST) Institute differ from the traditional approach?

Dr. Yasar: CMST not only offers a combined education to prepare the future workforce, but it also offers a layered-approach to gradually draw students into inquiring and learning more about math and science. It allows one to teach science from the general to the specific. At the outset, students are made aware that nature and its processes are governed by a handful of scientific laws. CMST tools can be used to teach about a scientific topic via a series of student-controlled visual representations and simulations without the students having to know the mathematical and scientific details of the phenomenon under study. This provides a general simplistic framework from which one can introduce a topic and then move deeper as students gain higher interest that will help them move to more sophisticated levels of understanding.

EW: Why do you think training teachers to use computational math and science will help improve students' academic skills?

Dr. Yasar First of all, we believe that improving the teacher quality and retention rate is a key element in improving student achievement. More than 50 percent of math and science teachers leave their profession within the first five years of employment. Offering them the latest technology tools and related training have proven to be great incentives for teachers.

We believe that computational technology offers a new pedagogical approach to math and science education. A computational approach allows controlled experimentation with a variety of scientific topics in an affordable fashion. It employs math models to describe physical phenomenon, therefore bringing a new perspective to students about the usefulness of math as a tool in real life.

For example, having a [computer] model of an airplane or a rocket during flight gives an opportunity to study its behavior by changing some design parameters or environmental factors. To do this experiment, students (or teachers) do not need to know anything about the math and science involved, but as they experiment with the model they may gain both an appreciation and a deeper curiosity for mathematics and science. This allows a non-threatening introduction to scientific topics while further stimulating deeper interest and knowledge.

The students taught by CMST teachers have been offered the opportunity to explore math and science in new ways stimulating nearly all of their senses in the process and that reaches out to all student learning styles. Today youngsters have grown up in a world of computing and will live and work their entire lives in a world that manipulates and relies on computation. By giving their teachers the tools and education to structure their lesson plans and daily routines around computation and integrate them into the natural sciences, the classroom becomes both a place tailored to the world students live in and excites them for a world of computation they could eventually help create.

EW: How can teachers apply these approaches in their lessons?

Dr. Yasar: There have been dozens of ways that these approaches have manifested in the classroom. In its most basic form, graphing calculators have been used to study basic computation, measure the results of experiments, and share with classrooms basic models of their results. Electronic white boards create an interactive learning tool where students come to the board and add to a class discussion by changing a parameter in a controlled simulation or visual presentation. All project teachers have been given laptops, graphing calculators, and computer projectors and sharable electronic white boards to use in their classrooms.

In particular, programs like Interactive Physics and Geometers Sketchpad have been used to simulate fundamental principals of math and science allowing students to input variables that affect the falling of objects, the orbiting of planets and the charge of subatomic particles, all in colorful, illustrated ways.

Each year all of our teachers and their students participate in an annual Challenge Project where they solve problems of math and science, from understanding how to tip a waiter to the intricacy of the human circulatory system works and interacts with the rest of the body.

EW: Can you give an example of a middle-school science lesson involving computational science?

Dr. Yasar: A sample middle-school science lesson using CMST tools would be the study of the principle of conservation of energy using a rollercoaster. In this context, conservation of energy says that the sum of potential and kinetic energy must be a constant. At the top of a hill, the rollercoaster car has mostly potential energy, because it has the potential to go downhill. As the car descends, its potential energy is converted into kinetic energy (i.e., the energy of motion). The Interactive Physics software package used in this lesson plan allows a simulation of this experiment to easily be performed by the students. Students do not need to know the laws of physics, nor any computer programming to do the experiment. Through a menu-driven graphical interface, they can change both the environment (from earth to moon) and the objects. They can easily use graphs to follow changes in energy, speed, and other parameters. For example, in the figure, the kinetic and potential energies (and their sum) can be graphed as a function of time to demonstrate that their sum is constant.

EW: Why do you think U.S. middle-school students begin to fall behind students from other countries in science and math?

Dr. Yasar: There are a plethora of reasons, many of which have been occurring steadily for decades. One cited often by students themselves is that they have no interest in these topics. In general, students perceive mathematics and science as tough topics. The degree of details and the number of mathematical steps necessary to study natural phenomena often cause students to perceive science as a complex discipline. Plus, since technical professions are not promoted by the media like other professions, students do not think math and science are worth learning.

In other countries such as China and India, students are obligated to learn mathematics and science in grade schools. In American middle schools, social development is as important as technical skills. Plus, when students are presented with too many choices at early ages it overwhelms them. Most students stay away from math and science to avoid difficult topics while trying to stay cool among peers.

EW: What can elementary-level teachers do to better prepare students for more challenging math and science topics in the upper grades?

Dr. Yasar: Indications are that a more hands-on and exploratory approach to education will stimulate student interest. Teachers need to involve their students more and talk with them, not just at them. Our experience has shown that elementary teacher candidates do not like math and science very much. As a result, a good chunk of our kids are being taught by people who probably dislike mathematics and science. We need elementary teachers who know these subject areas better so they can be at ease with themselves while guiding and teaching students about these topics.

While technology should be used to make it fun for kids to learn math and science, it is also important to teach them basic skills. It is important that kids get a strong mathematical preparation at the elementary level. For example, the multiplication table should be memorized at an early age. There are many young cashiers who cannot count change.

EW: Do you think the U.S. needs to make overall changes in its teacher preparation programs for math and science teachers?

Dr. Yasar: Absolutely. An education that is augmented by technology such as is being implemented in the CMST Institute has been demonstrated to improve student understanding of fundamental concepts and increase student interest in the learning process. It allows students to participate more fully in their education and assume a sense of ownership of their understanding. If students feel like they are partners in the process, their sense of self-worth is increased.

We believe that an integrated approach to math and science education is very effective, both as a strategy to produce a multi-skilled workforce and a pedagogy to use in the classroom. Computational (approach) technology serves in the role of a bridge (or as a glue) to connect technical fields. Computation plays a role once played by mathematics in interconnecting sciences.

This e-interview with Dr. Osman Yasar is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.



Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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