Understanding math

The wedding of two programs will help kids learn mathematics

It represents the perfect marriage of two disciplines. Take the School of Engineering, which has long been bringing hands-on technology and engineering projects into K-12 classrooms, and wed it to the Department of Education, which has been involved in teaching algebra to elementary school children.

The result is a project that aims to help middle school children better understand math by working through engineering design exercises and also help teachers develop new ways of explaining abstract concepts to their students. Teachers will learn that engineering has exciting endeavors that use algebra, say the project leaders, and that students can use engineering skills to solve advanced math problems.

Three goals
The project, called "Integrating Algebra and Engineering in the Classroom," is a three-year program funded with a $360,870 grant from the GE Fund for Math Excellence. It has three prime goals: to support teachers by providing a curriculum that encompasses algebra and engineering; to make sure no eighth grader involved in the projects fails the math portion of the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System); and to increase the opportunities for teacher training in math, science, engineering and technology.

"This grant helps to formalize a relationship that has been going on for awhile between engineering and education at Tufts," said Bárbara Brizuela, assistant professor of education, who is one of the leaders of the project. The two other project leaders are Peter Wong, director of special initiatives for the School of Engineering, and Erik Rushton, assistant director of the Center for Engineering Educational Outreach (CEEO.) The project leaders expect the program to be implemented at middle schools in Cambridge, Somerville, Lynn, Boston and Malden. Brizuela said the choice of communities highlights the program's commitment to diverse, under-represented schools in urban settings.

Massachusetts now requires that engineering and technology be taught in public schools from kindergarten through high school, an initiative adopted by the State Department of Education with the support of Tufts School of Engineering. "For most teachers," said Brizuela, "it's just adding one more thing to their plates, but we want to add to what they're already doing and enrich the curriculum. The teaching of algebra and math can be enhanced by teaching about it in the real world and linking it to things they're already trying to do."

House of pretzels
Rushton said studies have shown that if students are not comfortable with algebra, which is generally taught in eighth grade, they have difficulty with higher math. "So often," he said, "algebra is taught on a blackboard with chalk. Engineering education is good at providing relevance and hands-on, project-based learning. If we can provide engineering activities that are infused with algebraic content, it will reinforce what students have learned."

One example, he said, would be to have students construct buildings out of edible materials such as pretzel rods, marshmallows and spaghetti. Every item would have a predetermined cost, and students would have to decide whether the building would be used for residential, commercial or retail space. Each type of space would earn a set amount of income. Using algebra, students would be required to design and construct the building in such a way as to ensure they make a profit. A second project might have students build robotic cars and then develop equations involving the distance the car could travel for random amounts of time.

Starting this summer, workshops will be held at Tufts for sixth- and seventh-grade teachers from the communities where the program will be implemented. The workshops will focus on math and engineering content and teaching strategies. During the 2003-04 school year, teachers will use the math-enhanced engineering activities with support from Tufts faculty and graduate students. Classes will be videotaped to provide feedback, and the results will be incorporated into a second series of workshops, which will be held during winter 2004.

For the 2004-05 academic year, eighth-grade teachers and students will be brought into the program, and a summer workshop will be dedicated to eighth-grade teachers. During that school year, teachers from grades 6, 7 and 8 will implement the curriculum, also with support from Tufts students. In the final year of the project, the project leaders will evaluate the program and consider ways to expand and disseminate it to other school systems.