Carnegie Mellon University

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February 17, 2014

Partners Hope Grant Adds Up to Math Success

By Jocelyn Duffy

Thinking about math in terms of online shopping instead of theoretical number theory might tame adolescent fears of the discipline.

The subject can strike fear into some junior high and high school students yet create a devoted and fanatical following among others.

While there is no single answer for what causes such wildly different emotions, effective teaching and access to high-level math courses are thought to contribute to positive experiences with the subject.

Researchers from local universities, including Carnegie Mellon, and Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers are embarking on a new project to determine if changing content and instructional techniques can benefit students who have been historically marginalized by traditional mathematics education.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded an $8 million grant under the NSF Math and Science Partnership program to the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) and the Education Development Center, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit partnering with Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University.

John Mackey, a teaching professor, associate department head and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, is a co-principal investigator on the grant, which will bring together public school teachers from grades 6-12 with mathematicians from area universities to understand new ways to engage students in math.

Mackey said they are excited to work on mathematics instruction with the educators.

"We will all get to learn new techniques and gain perspective on the teaching of mathematics," Mackey said. "We anticipate that lasting partnerships will be formed and that more students will be energized to pursue mathematics at the university level."

In June, Mackey and five Carnegie Mellon teaching-track faculty members will conduct a monthlong program in which PPS teachers and administrators will learn concepts in math and collaboratively develop new ways of conveying these concepts to students, particularly those students from low-income or underserved populations.

"There are a lot of mathematical problems that are easy to state, and everyone can at least get an additional degree of satisfaction from exploring them. When you go a little deeper, there are more open-ended problems that students can get involved and invested in solving," Mackey said. "For example, there are topics in elementary number theory that can be applied to practical applications like cryptography for sending your credit card information over a secure website. Kids might initially blanch at 'number theory,' but not online shopping."

Throughout the school year, the university faculty will visit the participating junior and senior high schools to observe math classes and visit with the students, teachers and administrators.

Public school teachers also can attend a monthly colloquia held at Carnegie Mellon, which began in January.