Montana State University

MSU, Bozeman schools involved in national math study

November 17, 2014 -- MSU News Service

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BOZEMAN -- Seventy-two Bozeman teachers will participate in a groundbreaking national study led by researchers at Montana State University and collaborators in Virginia and California. 

Funded by a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the three-year project will examine how intensive training can affect teachers’ use of mathematical modeling in the classroom. The practice can have far-reaching effects on how students perceive and use mathematics, according to project leaders at MSU, George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif.

Researchers from the three institutions will oversee the study in partnership with officials in the Bozeman Public Schools, the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia and Pomona Unified School District in California. The three schools will each have 72 K-8 teachers participating in the study. 

The project is called an IMMERSION project, referring to “Investigating Mathematical Modeling, Experiential Learning and Research through Sustainable Professional Development and an Integrated Online Network for Elementary Teachers.” 

IMMERSION is an important part of the nationwide movement toward greater student proficiency and critical thinking in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), according to project leaders. The Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice, recently adopted by Montana and most other U.S. states for their K-12 curriculum, identify mathematical modeling as one way that students should use mathematics to solve problems encountered in the workplace and life. Mathematics education research has shown that students who work on such real-world problems feel less anxiety about mathematics and are more likely to see mathematics as relevant and useful. 

Elementary teachers may not be prepared to teach mathematical modeling, however. Many teachers may not fully understand how the term is used in current standards, since teachers refer to “modeling” in several different ways. 

“Some teachers, for example, may think modeling is simply doing traditional word problems, where there is only one right method to use and only one correct solution, but modeling is much more than that,” said principal investigator Padmanabhan Seshaiyer, professor of mathematical sciences at George Mason University. “In modeling, students have more options about how to go about solving a problem, and that requires a higher level of thinking about mathematics.” 

To be considered mathematical modeling, a classroom task may have more than one possible solution, and the methods required to solve it may not be obvious in the problem. It’s usually up to the students to decide how to gather information needed for a solution and how to express that information mathematically, giving students more creativity and choice than they may be accustomed to in a math class. Once students develop their own working models for a solution, they can test and refine the models for an even more accurate solution. 

“In short, it’s the kind of mathematics that mathematicians themselves use, and that students will need in today’s demanding global marketplace,” said Rachel Levy, co-principal investigator and associate professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College. Earlier this year, Levy led a national panel of researchers and teachers to identify ways that mathematical modeling should appear in the K-12 curriculum. 

The project leaders said IMMERSION will help K-8 teachers incorporate modeling into their mathematics teaching by providing intensive professional development training during the summer, followed by support and collaboration during the school year. All three participating districts have identified professional development in mathematical modeling as a long-range goal for improving mathematics instruction. The study will have a particular focus on increasing the achievement of diverse populations, such as special education and advanced students, students with limited English proficiency, and economically disadvantaged students.

“We estimate that around 4,000 students will benefit just in our three participating districts at the outset of the project,” said Elizabeth Burroughs, co-principal investigator and associate professor of mathematics education at MSU. “Of course, the number of students affected in these three districts by positive changes in teachers’ practices in modeling will increase each year. And we hope that the curriculum materials produced by our study will become the basis for similar advances in other districts across the country.” 

In Bozeman, the research team designing the professional development will include Burroughs, Mary Alice Carlson, Jenny Green, and Megan Wickstrom -- all faculty members in MSU’s Department of Mathematical Sciences -- and LeAnne Yenny, a fifth-grade teacher at Emily Dickinson Elementary School and assistant director of the Science Math Resource Center at MSU. 

Over the course of the project, researchers will study the professional development process by collecting information about how teachers’ mathematics knowledge, attitudes, and practices change as a result of their participation. 

“We hope to learn exactly how targeted professional development in mathematical modeling affects teacher practice,” Burroughs said. “The teachers will try mathematical modeling activities in their classroom and report the outcomes at a conference. Once we present and publish our research results about how teachers learn about and implement the modeling process, that will enable school systems nationwide to implement their own effective professional development.” 

Teacher selection will begin in the spring, with the first professional development workshops planned for the summer. The project will continue through 2017.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or