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West Side projects test real-world use of math as learning tool
[July 09, 2012]

West Side projects test real-world use of math as learning tool

PATTERSON, Jul 09, 2012 (The Modesto Bee - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Ten teens sat in clusters, pencils out, running the numbers on how tough it might be to crack a safe.

Local banks can relax; the treasure these eighth-graders sought was candy sitting on their desks and the wall they had to break through to get it: algebra.

Besides, the feds already were watching. The Patterson class and another in Newman are part of a statewide, five-year research grant. Newman's voluntary summer session ended last month; Patterson's program winds up today.

In regular algebra class, the textbook would tell students the formula and ask them to calculate permutations. In Leigh Krebs' summer school class, kids got wrapped pieces of candy and had to figure out all the ways those could be arranged, prep work for building a combination lock.

Whether three candies or three numbers, the answer is 27 combinations for the typical locker or 27 permutations on a worksheet.

The case of combinations versus permutations goes beyond learning formulas; it may offer better formulas for learning.

Will students learn more algebra using hands-on projects or from traditional textbook and lecture classes? Only time and study will tell for sure, but in Patterson students had the answer.

"It's easier." "She doesn't make it boring." The kid comment that caught the gold ring: "Math can be in everything. It's everywhere." Tying algebra to real world examples and students' goals "makes it stick," Krebs said.

"Math is used in so many various occupations," she said. Too many kids stop paying attention starting in middle school because they just don't think they'll ever use it.

But those who build wind turbines use it. Students had to test blades, figuring the area of different geometric shapes and calculating the best angle to catch the breeze as they built their models the first week.

Practice made purposeful Need wheelchair access? Building a model ramp takes knowing fractions, proportions and ratios. Get the math wrong and the toothpicks won't line up correctly under the cardboard.

Applications like these give purpose to practice, making textbook teaching concrete. Along the way, a lot of arithmetic skills get sharpened as well.

All the Patterson students said they had struggled with not only pre-algebra lessons last year, but basics such as fractions. That's why many of them were chosen, Krebs said.

For four hours a day, for four weeks out of their summer, 10 kids remained out of a full class of 30 in the completely voluntary session. They get no grade, no credits, just a jump start on next year, when Krebs again will be their teacher.

In her Creekside Middle School class during the coming year, Krebs will substitute three project-based lessons for regular algebra chapters. Flight paths, cubes and catapults are in their future.

Krebs will be doing the paperwork to watch whether concepts students cover are strengths for her class come state testing time. Did that math really stick, or did students learning from the book do better? The few students in her class alone would not give a definitive answer, but these same lessons will be taught in the same research project at Yolo Middle School in Newman and dozens of other schools, big and little, urban and rural, in 17 school districts across the state.

Officially called the STEM Learning Opportunities Providing Equity, the project is funded through the U.S. Department of Education's Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program. This is one of five such grants being watched for use nationally, said Kandy Woerz of the Stanislaus County Office of Education, who leads the local research teams.

These kids will be followed for four years to see if the hands-on projects pay off in making math relevant and realistic.

"It's a different way of teaching the same theories and concepts," Woerz said.

Tweens and teens tend to tune out math lectures, she said.

"Everything they need to do in math can be done on a calculator. (But) you need to know what to plug into the calculator," Woerz said. Students also need to know that math matters in the real world and in real careers.

"It starts now," she said. "They can't wait for high school to start to develop that plan." Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339.

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