Middle School Math Booster
$9.5 million grant launches Poincaré Institute at Tufts
Middle school math education will get a boost in nine New England communities, thanks to a new institute based at Tufts and funded with a $9.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
The five-year grant will team public school teachers with mathematicians, physicists and educational researchers from Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences under a single umbrella called the Poincaré Institute: A Partnership for Mathematics Education.
The institute follows the model of Tufts’ Fulcrum Institute for Leadership in Science Education, a series of online graduate courses that prepare teachers in kindergarten through grade 8 to lead research-centered science learning and teaching.
The Poincaré Institute, named after the French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré, will focus exclusively on mathematics education at the middle-school level and serve as a bridge between elementary and high school math.
Middle school is a crucial time in mathematics education because that is when students begin to work with abstract quantities. Unfortunately, many students lose interest in math at this point, when they start the transition to algebra.
Effective teaching could reverse that trend, says Roger Tobin, a professor of physics at Tufts and a co-investigator on the project. “To have an impact on students, you need to work with the teachers to deepen their intellectual knowledge of the subject matter they are trying to teach,” he says.
The Poincaré Institute will also help teachers identify ways in which students learn and think about mathematics, says Montserrat Teixidor-i-Bigas, a mathematics professor and the principal investigator from Tufts on the project. It “aims at preparing knowledgeable, enthusiastic, confident middle school mathematics teachers who can work as a team in educating the children in their classrooms,” she says.
The institute will offer an online curriculum of graduate-level courses on mathematics and pedagogy. Middle school teachers will visit the Tufts campus before each course begins. They will hold weekly meetings at their schools and will receive monthly visits at these meetings from Arts and Sciences faculty and others.
The participating school districts are Fitchburg, Leominster, Medway, Medford and Somerville in Massachusetts; Dover, Sanborn and Timberline in New Hampshire; and Portland in Maine. The institute is scheduled to begin this fall with course development; the first course will be taught in spring 2011, with some 60 teachers expected in the first class.
Teachers will also be groomed to take on leadership roles in their districts, sharing their new knowledge and skills with colleagues. “We’ve found that some teachers do not have the best grasp of math concepts because their own math background is a little spotty,” says Jean Briggs Badger, a Dover, N.H., school administrator. “Becoming more comfortable with the material will enable teachers to encourage students who might otherwise lose interest in mathematics.”