Once taught primarily to college-bound students, algebra is now recognized as a critical “gateway” course for all students. “It’s considered the entrée into higher math, the hard sciences, even into university study itself,” explains Peter Braunfeld, professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It’s become the difference between getting in and being left out.”
Algebra is a powerful tool of symbolic thought, one that reduces relationships to their essentials. The capacity for such abstract thought is common to all people from early childhood on, contend Faye Ruopp and E. Paul Goldenberg in their introduction to EDC’s new math curriculum, Impact Mathematics, published by Everyday Learning Corporation. A child understands, for instance, that his or her older sibling will always be older, and always by the same number of years—a relationship that could be expressed symbolically as x = y + n, where n is the difference in years between ages x and y.
Most students do develop strong algebraic ideas in elementary school, but learning to express them formally, in algebraic language, has traditionally waited for the 9th grade in the United States. Impact Mathematics capitalizes on students’ innate capacity for abstraction and weaves a full year of algebra across the three years of middle school, thereby making room for yet higher math in high school curricula.
Impact’s curriculum builds on Access to Algebra, a highly successful algebra program developed in Australia to bring higher math to girls and minority students. Impact Mathematics takes the Australian program a step further, broadening the scope of the curriculum to draw connections between algebra and other facets of math such as arithmetic, geometry, and data analysis.
Developed specifically for middle school students, Impact Mathematics “places some pretty abstract ideas into a very comfortable, developmentally appropriate way of thinking for middle grade kids,” says senior project director Cindy Orrell. Relying on character and narrative to a greater extent than traditional math books, Impact Mathematics enlivens the text with cartoons of “math thinkers in action”—middle school students who make lame jokes but also think powerfully, and differently, about mathematical questions.
Presented in the format of three traditional, year-long math textbooks, the Impact Mathematics curriculum is expected to appeal to teachers as well. Structured around mathematical questions and basic principles, it offers detailed guidance to middle school teachers for whom teaching algebra may be a new venture. The curriculum also aims for a balance between conceptual thinking and skill-building. “There isn’t the endless, stifling drill that you and I may have known as youngsters,” says Braunfeld, who served as the project’s chief consultant. “It’s more of a middle way.”
The Everyday Learning Corporation has published the 7th and 8th grade modules of Impact Mathematics; the 6th grade module will be out this fall.
Originally published on July 31, 2000