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Grant to fund middle−school math program

The Poincaré Institute will train New England public school teachers

Published: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 07:10

Grant

Justin McCallum / Tufts Daily

A National Science Foundation grant will fund Tufts’ math programs in middle-schools.

Tufts hopes to give a boost to a new generation of young students by improving instruction in a number of middle schools across New England.

Tufts has recently joined forces with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help improve middle school math education in nine communities in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine thanks to a five−year, $9.5 million grant from the NSF. Tufts mathematicians, physicists and educational researchers will partner with public school teachers from the selected districts to staff the Poincaré Institute for Mathematics Education.

Named for French mathematician Henri Poincaré, the program will train teachers through a series of interactive online courses developed by Tufts faculty and designed to improve mathematics and science education, Professor of Physics and Poincaré participant Roger Tobin said.

"We hope to deepen the understanding of the [involved] teachers among the various mathematics they teach and the connections between the mathematics and society and science," Tobin said. "Our hope is that the teachers will take this back to their own classrooms to deepen and enrich their curriculum. Teachers who understand their subject matter more deeply will do a better job of educating their students. … The goal is not to teach them more mathematics, but a deeper understanding of the math they are teaching."

Tobin emphasized that the Poincaré Institute is a partnership; the program will not attempt to design curricula or micromanage teachers' courses, but will instead help them teach their material more effectively.

"By enriching the intellectual background of the teachers and what's known about student understandings, this will enrich what's going on in their classrooms," he said.

The teachers will also be involved in ongoing discussion groups, in which they will talk about how to apply changes in the classroom. The middle school teachers will meet weekly, and Tufts staff will attend on a monthly basis.

"We hope to better prepare math teachers for their task," Tufts Professor of Mathematics Montserrat Teixidor I Bigas said. "A good number of middle school teachers who are currently teaching math did not take many courses in this subject when they were in college. Even those who did rarely thought about the relationship between the supposedly higher−level math taught in college and the mathematics that they had learned in elementary school."

Teixidor explained that middle school teachers are also faced with the task of changing curricula and often need assistance with this adjustment.

"Some topics that weren't traditionally taught [until] high school, like algebra, are now routinely offered in middle school or are introduced in earlier grades. The main goal of the courses that will be part of the Institute is to provide teachers with a wider and deeper vision of mathematics that allows them to make connections among various topics, present them in a unified way and engage the students in their classes," she said. "We hope that these children will then be able and willing to take more advanced math classes in high school and college and make use of this knowledge when studying other topics or when faced with a variety of situations in their life."

The Institute's collaborators chose to focus their efforts on middle school students because the period is a critical one in the development of the target students' mathematical skills, Teixidor said.

"This is a transition period. In elementary school, children are instructed mostly in arithmetic. In middle school they start to think in more general terms; letters are often replaced with symbols and concrete objects by structures. It is also a time when many school systems start streaming their pupils and when the gap widens between racial, socio−economic and even gender groups. It is particularly important at this point to make sure that every student is able to achieve at a high level and is not relegated to remedial classes by the time he or she reaches high school," she said.

The Poincaré Institute will follow the model of an earlier Tufts program, the Fulcrum Institute for Leadership in Science Education, which is a two−year series of online graduate courses that supplement the science portion of teachers' education for kindergarten through eighth grade.

"Six or seven years ago, a group of us put together a physics and science [program], the Fulcrum Institute," Tobin said. "We found this very fulfilling and productive. As this was coming to a close, some of the faculty decided to expand it to mathematics. It took a couple years; we were highly rated but not [sufficiently] funded, so it took another year for the funding."

The goal of the Poincaré Institute is to promote and maintain the interest of students, ensuring that they continue to pursue mathematics successfully, Tobin said, and the project's success relies wholly on the participating educators' drive.

"Where does the impetus come from? The commitment of faculty to improving science and math education," he said.

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