Math motivation: Grant brings together ISU professors and Vincennes teachers

By: ISU Communications and Marketing Staff, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
December 15, 2009

VINCENNES - Gary Case leaned over the student desk and slit through the tape holding the cardboard box closed. He eagerly opened the box and pulled out a plastic bag filled with tiny black erasers. He then cut open another box and pulled out white boxes of dry erase markers.

The individual-size dry erase boards are still on their way.

"It's like going back to the slates in the 1800s," said Case, Lincoln High School math department chair.

Yet it's just one way - an old-fashioned way - of getting the students at Vincennes Lincoln High School interested in math. High tech is meeting low tech as Indiana State University professors and math teachers at Lincoln and Clark Middle School are working together to improve math pass rates for the school corporation.

Statewide 40 percent of high school students passed the 2008-09 Algebra End-of-Course Assessment Exam, in Vincennes that number hovered around 20 percent. The school has six sections of math lab for students who have not passed the algebra exam under the course assessment test or the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP). Students must pass the test to graduate from high school.

Elizabeth Brown, Indiana State associate professor of math and computer science, said the tests do not require students to simply work a problem to its solution.

"They've gone beyond solving," she said. "It's predicting and interpreting."

Indiana State and the Vincennes Community School Corporation collaborated to receive a two-year, $95,000 grant from the federal Department of Education to help Vincennes improve its math scores.

The grant earmarks $7,000 each for the middle and high school to spend on supplies such as the dry erase boards, markers and erasers. Students figure out the math problems and hold up the boards for teachers to check.

"The grant helped pay for every classroom to have a set of dry erase boards. We give them these and they can write out the answer. Kids for some reason like writing on these more than a piece of paper," Case said, adding the school has one set. "We used them in a calculus class and they love them. They're wondering when they can use them again."

Twice a month Brown journeys south from Terre Haute to Vincennes to meet with the high school math teachers to brainstorm ideas for incorporating them in classrooms.

"Teachers don't have time to do this planning during the regular work day," Brown said. "We've carved out this time where that's what they can focus on. We find activities and adapt them to the classroom. We look through books from the ISU math resource library. We find an idea and see how we can develop it further."

Marylin Leinenbach, associate professor of elementary education, makes the same journey twice a month to work with the middle school math teachers.

"We're discussing lots of hands-on ways to teach the concepts," said seventh grade math teacher Melissa Schroeder.

By giving the students a good understanding of math in middle school, teachers hope that will help them succeed once they reach high school.

"It's an algebra grant, but no matter what math you do it ties into algebra," Leinenbach said. "Anything we do increases children's knowledge."

On a recent Monday afternoon, middle school teachers used graphing calculators to practice plotting x and y coordinates in such a way that created a tree image on the calculators. They then were able to reflect that image across the y-axis.

As Kelly Wisley, sixth grade math teacher, began to think about different ways she could do activities with the calculators, Leinenbach encouraged her, "Keep thinking. You're marvelous when you're adapting."

Later, Leinenbach praised the middle school teachers for adapting the brainstormed activities for their classrooms.

"I'm so amazed and pleased how they modify," she said. "I'll show them an activity and they tell me time and time again, ‘This is how I will modify it for my students.'"

Middle school teachers said newly implement activities such as singing songs about y=mx+b and playing games with negative and positive integers are keeping their students engaged in math.

"They're excited," said Barry Clegg, sixth grade math instructor.

Although teachers have used some activities this year, in a broader launch, the teachers will implement the projects, activities and centers they created this year during the 2010-11 school year.

"I think we all understand what we're doing wasn't working," said Joe Keller, high school algebra teacher. "I constantly want to try new things and see if they stick. Her (Brown) coming in gives us new things and a new way of looking at things."

"We'll be able to do some things we otherwise wouldn't have the time to do," Case said about the planning sessions' impact. "There are eight people in our department, three are coaches and one is an official and they're already teaching six classes. It's very busy."

Yet, all of the teachers want to make an impact in the classroom.

"We're committed to making math more interesting to students," Case said.

Keller described many of his students as ones who need activities to understand and get involved in math.

"We really need some activities to get them more involved," he said. "Those type of kids are learning while doing so they're not just sitting doing problems. They're doing things while learning."

One of the ideas involves learning slopes though Hot Wheel cars.

"Instead of just learning the slope formula, we'll build ramps and run Hot Wheel cars and see with three books high it will go this far and with five books high it will go this far," Case said.

From the individual dry erase boards to Algebra computer games to class activities, the teachers are working to help students understand mathematical principles.

"We're looking at strategies, activities, games, Web sites and instructional tools - anything we can do to wake some up, to make them interested or maybe think for a few days that math is fun," Case said. "We're trying to motivate."

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Contact: Marylin Leinenbach, Indiana State University, associate professor of elementary education, at 812-237-2847 or Marylin.Leinenbach@indstate.edu

Elizabeth Brown, Indiana State University, Indiana State University, associate professor mathematics and computer science, at 812-237-3423 or Liz.Brown@indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or Jennifer.Sicking@indstate.edu

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Vincennes-math-grant/120709vincennesgrant-244/736413959_kZPhF-D.jpg

Cutline: Gary Case, Vincennes math department chair, listens as ISU Associate Professor Liz Brown discusses a project. ISU photo/Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Vincennes-math-grant/120709vincennesgrant-216/736411096_xMtXP-D.jpg

Cutline: Vincennes math teachers Janis Hert, Dave Hill and Eric Mikiska discuss different activities they could use to engage students in learning algebra. ISU photo/Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Vincennes-math-grant/120709vincennesgrant-102/736396503_kWm3F-D.jpg

Cutline: Barry Clegg, sixth math grade teacher, and Kelly Wisley, sixth grade math teacher, discuss using graphing calculators for a math project. ISU photo/Tony Campbell

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Vincennes-math-grant/120709vincennesgrant-149/736403046_gZfbf-D.jpg

Cutline: ISU Associate Professor Marylin Leinenbach discusses using a graphing calculator with Melissa Schroeder, Vincennes seventh grade math teacher. ISU photo/Tony Campbell