How to Make Better Math and Science Teachers

Tim Sorey, an associate professor of chemistry education at University of Central Washington, shows his engaging technique to secondary teachers.

There was one kid who never showed up to algebra class at his Washington State middle school. Then one day, he sidled in and his classmates showed him how to use the classroom’s new hand-held technology.

“He’s been coming to class every since,” his teacher said.

It’s hard to resist a teacher who knows how to engage his or her students. And if he or she can pair that creative pedagogy with subject knowledge? Well, that’s the kind of high-quality teaching that can transform a classroom, especially one that serves low-performing students.

That’s why, in the rural districts of north-central Washington State, about 100 math and science teachers and their higher-ed colleagues have been engaged for nearly three years in the mastery of student engagement and content knowledge. Through the combination of two grants, one from the University of Washington-Bothell entitled, “Teaching Math in a Technical World,” administered by Dr. Robin Angotti, and the other, “Progress to Math and Science Proficiency (MSP): Reaching Out to Rural Schools,” through the North Central ESD, the educators have immersed themselves every summer in a week-long institute for their own learning.

And the results are in: It works.

Grant evaluator Janet Gordon

Student test scores and other qualitative data from the Washington teachers show clearly that this kind of well-designed, intensive professional development significantly improves teacher quality – and, consequently, student learning. “They’re rocking in the classroom!” said Dr. Janet Gordon, an independent researcher/evaluator who co-authored the MSP grant and also teaches educational statistics at Montana State University.

The student test scores are significant, although they’re not the only measure of the program’s success. Quantitatively, data analysis shows that a whopping 50 percent of the variation in student scores can be directly attributed to whether or not their teacher is using the kinds of Web 2.0 skills taught at the summer institute. But test scores rarely tell the whole story: Importantly, qualitative analysis also shows students are far more engaged and motivated in the classrooms of those teachers.

“They really like it,” said Ann George, one of just two math teachers at Brewster High School in Brewster, Washington, where students are mostly Latinos whose parents work in the local cherry orchards.

So what happens at this magical summer institute?

Teachers practice new technology – like that hand-held Mobi, as eye-catching to a student as an iPhone. They catch up on the evolving standards of middle-school math and science, making sure they know the necessary content. (Remember when algebra was a 10th-grade subject? Not anymore…) And they collaborate to craft the kind of squelching, splashing, hands-on science and math lessons that captivate kids.

For George, a fifth-year teacher, the institute has upended her approach to math lessons. In the past, like many math teachers, she would have started any new lesson with lots of numbers on a piece of paper. Here’s a linear equation and here’s how to solve it. Only later, after lots of practice with those numbers, would she show her students how that math could be applied to real-world problems.

Science teachers, George noted, usually take the opposite tack. They’ll start with a phenomenon and then work backwards to explain it. And, as they do, they intrigue their students with real-life application.

“It’s not interesting to learn the math unless you know what it’s good for,” said George.  “It’s really important, as you’re learning, to know that it applies to something that matters.”

Last year, instead of writing a quadratic equation on the board, George asked her kids first to throw balls in the air. “The things kids like best are the things they can hold in their hands,” she said.

Meanwhile, by working side-by-side at the summer institutes, the participating teachers gain a better understanding of what their local community college expects from incoming kids, which helps avoid future remediation. And likewise, the community college professors hear more about how to help their students transfer successfully to University of Washington campuses.

Wenatchee Valley College's Sharon Wiest

Sharon Wiest, a math professor at Wenatchee Valley College, a partner in the grant, appreciates that her high-school colleagues have begun aligning their curriculum with her expectations. She expected that would be a benefit of the program – and it has been.

But it also has changed her approach to her own classroom. Wiest often uses Fathom software now, sometimes with a motion-detecting sensor so that students can “walk” graphs, actually creating the steep or flat lines with their body movement. Like George, she also uses more “real-life” lessons – things that involve swinging pendulums or national debt data.

“It makes [students] realize that it’s not just the math in the book that they can do. They can actually do the math of the real world.”