For students who are struggling with math, finding exciting and engaging ways to interest them in the subject and help them succeed can be a difficult task. There is no shortage of web sites and software packages that help students practice their skills, but these can often lead to frustration for students. Integrating math with other disciplines into hands-on, project-based learning activities can transform math from a daunting and overwhelming subject to an approachable and practical set of skills. Two community technology centers (CTCs) engaged in integrated, hands-on learning programs shared some of their wisdom and experience with EDC’s America Connects Consortium (ACC).
Math Outside of School
Giving students the skills they need to succeed is at the heart of many CTCs’ missions. Many of the students served in these centers have had limited success in academics and come to the CTC feeling disenchanted with their school experience. As a result, there is always the danger in academics-focused afterschool programs, like those of many CTCs, of scaring these students away by having programming that too closely resembles more school.
Math instruction in particular can seem tedious to students who have not experienced much success in the past. With a growing focus on test performance and accountability sparked by the No Child Left Behind Act, it is essential to break the cycle of failure for these students. Part of the challenge in working with this group is motivating them to want to learn. An important step in that process is engaging them in activities that are relevant and useful not only to their success in school, but also to their understanding of and success in “the real world.”
These two objectives—meeting real world needs and school achievement—do not have to compete. A growing body of evidence suggests that students retain information for longer and in a more readily useful form when they engage in actual hands-on, math-rich activities than when limited to textbooks alone. Beyond memorizing multiplication tables and mathematical formulas, which can be useful steps along the way, mathematical literacy also requires problem-solving skills and the ability to adapt what you have learned to unfamiliar situations. Honing these abilities is essential for success and can be done even when math is not the primary focus of a program.
CTCs are in a great position to make change in these areas. They often have more flexibility than schools both in curriculum and scheduling. Projects can extend over longer periods of time and take place off-site. CTCs are also in a position to be flexible in their approach. They can experiment with integrating various subjects, can highlight the math of everyday situations, and can work to breakdown the misconception that math is irrelevant or too difficult. CTCs also have the benefit of simply not being school. Many students who come to the CTC are there by choice. As a result, they may be more enthusiastic about getting involved in the activities.
The Integrated Approach
The Woodburn Community Technology Center (WCTC) is located at Chemeketa Community College in Woodburn, Oregon. The students served by WCTC face many challenges. With a large population of Latino and Russian immigrants in the community, 40% of the students enrolled in the local high schools are in ESL classes. The poverty and dropout rates are high. According to Susan Murray, Grant Director of WCTC, “Most students are the first in their families to be able to graduate from high school and almost none have family members who entered college.” The risk of losing these students grows as they experience setbacks. “We work with a number of different student groups, but the at-risk students in danger of dropping out of high school are a particular focus for this project. After struggling year after year, students feel they are too far behind to catch up,” explains Susan. WCTC works in partnership with three high schools in the district creating programs where at-risk 16–21 year olds learn to be successful students while completing credits for high school graduation.
The WCTC has been implementing an integrated curriculum that makes use of simulation games as teaching tools. The programs are designed to cover multiple disciplines and life skills and are highly engaging. Susan explains:
Students enroll in courses where active learning principles and cohort development are at the center of instruction. All courses are offered as integrated instructional blocks where students learn reading, writing, critical thinking and technology skills during simulation games based on content areas such as economics, global issues, health, etc. A strong component emphasizing personal responsibility, efficacy and achievement are part of the curriculum. Students learn for the first time that they can be successful in rigorous courses where the curriculum has relevance.
The simulation games, which go on for the entire 11-week term, are successful with the students on a number of fronts. The game approach heightens interest and the added degree of competition makes students want to learn and apply skills quickly. Supportive technology instruction is integrated seamlessly as well. For example, while engaging in a game involving a lot of consumer math, the students learn to use Excel to manage and manipulate their data. The skill integration and application approach of the simulation game format has had a significantly positive impact on the at-risk learners with whom WCTC works. Student feedback has been positive; one student exclaimed, “The game has changed my life because now I know what kinds of things to expect in life and the game has given me a head start on my future. I never thought I would say my greatest strength in the game ended up being my worst subject, MATH!”
Halfway across the country, in Columbus, Ohio, a different group of youth took part in an integrated learning program. The Columbus Science Saturdays (CSS) program, operated by the Columbus Public Schools, aims “to change students’ attitudes and interests in science and math by engaging them in hands-on and technology-based science and math-related activities.” This program, targeting 8th grade students who failed the Ohio 6th grade Science and Math Proficiency Tests, took place on five consecutive Saturdays and served 62 participants in its first session. While science activities were at the forefront of the program, the students worked on math-related skills as well. While they learned about the scientific process of investigation, they were also actively engaged in data collection and analysis. They also worked on their problem-solving skills through hypothesis development, experimentation, and drawing conclusions.
One of the project’s primary activities was a pond study. This activity involved hands-on data collection on the part of the students—including measuring water temperature and pH levels—and the use of animal population data. The students had to count, average, and evaluate results. Additionally, technology skills were incorporated as the students learned to use Excel to chart their findings. Feedback indicated the visits to the park were both the most enjoyable for the students and yielded the greatest long-term impact. The lasting effect of this applied experience can best be seen in one student’s written statement made on the final day of the class: “I thought this program was really fun, how you guys taught me different things that I did not know before and now I know and will never forget.”
At the WCTC, students are not only preparing for college by improving their reading, writing, math, and technology skills, they are also learning to become successful and confident students. The center finds that students’ scores improve on pre- and post-tests and that they complete work in their other classes when they had been unsuccessful in the past. According to Susan Murray, the difference in the simulation games at WCTC and regular math classes is the opportunity to focus on skill development in a broader context and to immediately apply skills to real life situations. This engages students while filling “pot holes” of skill development without apparent “remediation.” It also fits well with the integrated math problem solving encouraged in the Woodburn schools. In both programs, critical thinking and skill development are re-enforced.
The games also wound up being a wonderfully collaborative process both amongst the students and with the staff. Susan notes, “This type of teaching creates an interesting dynamic with staff as each person wants to create new pieces and add to the interest of the game.” Susan designed the games herself and has been resistant to “packaging” the games as with a publisher for fear they will become too static. She and the staff are constantly reinventing the games as they teach together: “The great thing is that we all, including students, get a fresh take each week.” The games can also be tailored to meet the needs of the different student populations each term.
Success need not be limited to improved skills for students. The reach of the CSS program goes beyond the students, making a concerted effort to involve parents in the program as well. Entire families can benefit from learning together, and adults and children alike seem to enjoy the hands-on, experiential learning approach of the program. It is a great forum for bringing students and parents together to work toward academic success.
As with any project-based learning activity, there are challenges involved. Instructor time and energy is significant and initially may amount to more than would be needed for a textbook lesson. The simulation games developed by the WCTC, for instance, require constant attention. As Susan notes, “Often we have to modify aspects of the game to accommodate the student groups’ reading, writing, and math levels. We also have to track a lot of data, create interesting twists and turns in the activities and stay up with all the students wherever they are in the process. It is high maintenance and takes a lot of teacher time.” The games also evolve over time, and as the teachers work together on them they try to improve them. It is difficult and time-consuming, and while Susan would love the artifacts of the game to be as glitzy as the ideas, the technological presentation has been slower to evolve.
Programs like Columbus Science Saturdays, which include activities that take place off-site, can present some logistical challenges. The program had to provide transportation via district buses for the participants and coordinate a lot of paperwork from students including Student Information Forms, Field Trip Permission Forms, and Media Release Forms. They also faced the additional challenges of getting support from the administration in the district and the difficulty of finding teachers who had the time to take on an additional project during non-school hours. With sustained effort and perseverance, however, the project has made big strides towards working successfully in cooperation with the district.
Programs like the two described here can be challenging endeavors, but the results can make it well worth the effort. There are a number of resources that can help CTCs with their efforts in implementing this type of programming, but perhaps the best advice comes from the programs that are already doing it themselves.
Susan Murray would warn programs to not jump right in with simulation games if they have not had previous experience with this type of curriculum design: “It would be good to do a workshop or mentor with someone who has a simulation game in place. Start slowly and experiment. It is certainly not something to do if you are short on time or need certainty or linearity. However, if you have clear learning outcomes, like high intensity challenge, and love student-centered instruction, this is a fun way to go for all involved.”
The staff at Columbus Science Saturdays stress the importance of collaboration, both with outside partners, such as Universities and Parks Departments, as well as internally. Staff members Chris Canaday and Beth Carnate report that:
The Columbus Science Saturdays program was very successful in terms of the interest and excitement it generated district-wide.. The involvement of 15 OSU graduate students, for example, was essential to the program’s success. These graduate students gained hands-on experience and knowledge concerning public school programs and students that will serve them well in their careers as teachers. The enthusiasm, creativity, and support demonstrated by these graduate students also had a great impact on the Science Saturdays participants….
While the involvement of outside graduate students from Ohio State University turned out to be a mutually beneficial partnership, CSS also explored the services available internally across departments of the school system to increase the effectiveness and appeal of the program. Transportation, marketing, and curriculum design departments can all work together to help make the program a success. Involving qualified teachers too is an important part of the process. Some programs may want to consider planning activities during the summer or on weekends so that more teacher involvement may be possible. As CSS staff has learned, “When unique programs come about as the result of unique partnerships, and when student success is the ultimate goal, then districts (or other entities) stand to gain a great deal of credibility in the community.”
WCTC and CSS offer just two examples of the many interesting and engaging ways to approach math instruction at CTCs, but as each CTC program has their own unique set of strengths and challenges, no one approach will be right for every center.
Originally published on July 1, 2005