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Bringing Math and Science Back

Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts High School Principal Dr. Starletta Jackson with a student in biology
Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts High School Principal Dr. Starletta Jackson with a student in biology

Ask experts in the field of technology and they'll say it's hard to underestimate the need the United States will have for a workforce that understands that math and science are interrelated. Tens of thousands of baby boomer-age astronauts, engineers, researchers and scientists retiring from the federal government within the next five years. The Human Genome Project generates vast amounts of biological data and has a constant need for new mathematical and computational tools for exploration. Combine those with that fact that our ability to compete in the global economic markets hinges solidly on our intellectual prowess and not the brawn needed in manufacturing, if Americans are to stay competitive then educators need to adopt a new way to teach math and science so that students understand the close connection between the two.

What is Baltimore doing to prepare some 87,000 students throughout the city? A lot, it turns out.

One teacher's odyssey

The story of Baltimore City Public Schools' (BCPS) increasingly successful integration of its math and science curricula is in large part the story of a single teacher. In 1995, having spent three decades with BCPS, Linda Eberhart was teaching math and reading at Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School when she noticed something curious about her students: when they left her classroom and walked across the hall to science class, they appeared to forget everything she'd taught them.

"When the state tested them for science and math, their math scores were ok, but it was clear they weren't applying their math skills to the science. I thought, this makes no sense. I know they know how to make a bar graph. I know they know how to measure. They're just walking down the hall to science class. What's happening?" she says.

Eberhart's solution was to swap teaching responsibilities with a colleague, giving up her reading content so she could teach both math and science.

"What research shows us is that when math is done in isolation, kids don't have any sense of why they're doing it or what it can be applied to," Eberhart says. "For math to stick, you need a connection to something. And science is an easy, logical connection to make the math stick."

Making it sticky

After taking over science instruction, Eberhart began to write what she calls "transdisciplinary" units for her students. Whether they learned about cocao trees, sand dunes, or cooking, they were implementing the basics of mathematics. Having her kids make a meal for each, she notes, was a wonderful way to teach them fractions, because they learned the hard way if they had figured the cooking time incorrectly or failed to double or triple their ingredients accurately.

"The kids would do calculations before writing their shopping list, and I didn't have to tell them when they were wrong," Eberhart notes. "They knew it because there wasn't enough food to go around."

Soon enough, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Eberhart's students were scoring the highest in math and science in the state of Maryland.

"It was the first time that African American, free and reduced lunch kids were achieving like this, and everyone prior to that had said it was impossible," Eberhart says. "How did I do it? By integrating science and math together."

On the heels of her success, which culminated in her being named Maryland Teacher of the Year in 2002, Eberhart decided to share her strategy before retiring. She hosted informal "professional learning community" sessions in her classroom one night a month, during which other fifth grade teachers from around the city would come to her classroom, order a few pizzas, and discuss ways to better integrate math into other areas of instruction. They called this group "Mathworks."

By George!

That was about the time when the BCPS research department began to study the performance of students taught by teachers attending Mathworks. They found that these students scored on average 20 to 40 points higher on standardized test than students of teachers who didn't attend. Initially, they merely theorized that teachers dedicated enough to set aside one evening per month for pedagogical development would just naturally be more enthusiastic in the classroom. So they tried an experiment, says Eberhart.

They took instructors from 11 Baltimore schools with the worst student performance and paid them to spend a Saturday each month discussing instruction. Would they come for the money and fail to integrate what they'd learned in the classroom? Turns out, their students' scores began to increase by 20 to 40 points as well.

Success, however, for Eberhart meant retirement would have to wait. In 2007, incoming BCPS CEO Andr�s A. Alonso made a pitch for her to become the city's Director of Math. She eventually complied, albeit with reluctance.

"I initially said no. I love teaching and I wanted to finish what I was doing. But he kept asking," she says. Eberhart has demonstrated so much innovation in the post -- this summer she partnered with the Baltimore Orioles to have summer school students learn about math by playing baseball and attending games at Camden Yards -- that retirement's looking more elusive. Last week she was promoted, her new title Executive Director of Teaching and Learning, a position in which she'll apply her ingenuity to all disciplines, from social studies to physical education.

Applying change throughout the system

The professional learning communities spearheaded by Eberhart have caught on like wildfire; on any given Saturday there are 16 classes taking place throughout the city with more than 200 teachers in attendance, all talking about their content and the best way to teach it. But as director of math, Eberhart's job � until last week, that is � has been to take the voluntary approach taken by the city's math teachers and codify it so that it's the basis of the standard math curriculum.

To this end, BCPS has enlisted the aid of Morgan State University. The duo are principle partners in the MSP-Start BRAIN-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) project, a $300,000, two-year program aimed at laying the groundwork for new teaching modules that, once implemented in area high schools, will help students better integrate the fundamentals of algebra and biology.

According to Dr. Kevin Peters, special projects coordinator for Morgan's Center for Excellence in Math and Science Education, the project will address a long-standing weakness in high school curricula.

"We often talk a lot about making connections between maths and sciences, but rarely do math and science teachers talk to each other about commonalities," he says. "We see [BRAIN-STEM] as an innovative approach."

Not just for geeks

BRAIN-STEM partners will collect and analyze data on student achievement and teacher characteristics from BCPSS ninth-through-twelfth grade math and science courses. The results will be used to design modules that address the content and pedagogical needs of BCPSS life sciences and mathematics teachers, particularly through the use of "integrated problem-based learning that incorporates standards-based mathematics instruction and inquiry-based science instruction." BRAIN-STEM Principle Investigator Asamoah Nkwanta says the project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, could be extended by several years if successful.

"We are hoping that all of the stakeholders, including students, their parents, teachers, administrators, staff, university professors, researchers, and college administrators, see that this could be a program that could benefit Baltimore and other public school programs that wish to join with us," Nkwanta says.

If the modules, which will be piloted at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, are successful, the school system will look at curricula integrating other combinations of science and math content areas, Eberhart says.

Back to school

Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins University, in addition to collaborating with Morgan State and BCPS on the BRAIN-STEM, is doing its part to retool Baltimore's teaching staff.

Francine Johnson and Anila Asghar, who are respectively math and science experts in the JHU School of Education, have developed an 18-credit graduate certificate programs for K-8 mathematics and science. The "Lead-Teachers" program offer a unique opportunity for teachers to better understand mathematics or science content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and to experience leadership opportunities by helping teach their colleagues peers.

"If we can train these teachers and send them back to their classrooms, they will influence all of their colleagues. We can use them as a model to demonstrate how science and math can be taught, and it will help with the professional development of their peers," says Johnson, adding that participants will be eligible to receive a graduate certificate in either mathematics or science upon satisfactory completion of the program requirements.

Paying it forward

Success can be a boon and a hindrance, however. Experts agree, Baltimore must do what it can to keep students schooled with the new approach to math in science from leaving the area after graduation. Jayfus Doswell, founder and CEO of the Baltimore-based "human performance" technology firm Juxtopia � and a former student of Eberhart's � is an example of a Baltimorean who has stayed close to his roots and is giving back to the next generation through STEM projects offered by his non-profit organization.

Doswell, who through Juxtopia will be helping develop the biotechnology curricula for BCPS, says the idea of STEM initiatives to integrate the activities of math and science, have measurable outcomes that can be reported (such as before and after testing), are applicable to real-world scenarios, and prepare students for three things: the workforce, graduate school, or entrepreneurship.

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