Math Lessons for the Real World Pilot Program Tests Curricula and Materials Designed to Teach Applied Math in Grades 5 to 8

Article excerpt

IN an eighth-grade class at Jefferson Middle School in Madison, Wis., students tackle a problem that seems more likely to land on the desk of a city planner.

Here's the dilemma: A reclaimed landfill is being rezoned. One party wants to build high-rise residences on the land, while another group is interested in single-family homes. Which is the best decision, and how should the plans be carried out?

The class is math. But it's not the typical American math class where teachers drill students on arithmetic problems and students must memorize and master abstract concepts from a textbook. In this class, which is serving as a pilot project for math-curricula reform, eighth-graders are using real-life examples to help them learn algebra, linear programming, and how to graph and plot data. During this hour, for instance, students provide examples of feasible and unfeasible building plans and plot the area of each house or high-rise in a coordinate system.

"Students see how math applies in the real world," says teacher Jane Beebe. "Those who are not good at math can see how to use it."

Making mathematics relate to real life is one of Thomas Romberg's goals for schools across the country. Dr. Romberg is the director of the National Center for Research in Mathematical Sciences Education (NCRMSE) at the University of Wisconsin/Madison. The center is helping to develop new math curricula and materials for grades 5 through 8. Jefferson Middle School and four other area schools are participating in this project.

Why change the way math is taught in United States schools?

Romberg gives several reasons. First, studies over the past 10 years have shown that the US lags behind other countries in math proficiency - a gap experts cite as one of the reasons for its decline in the global marketplace. In order for the US to remain economically competitive, schools need to change how they teach math, he says. Shifts in technology and in how math is used also require that mathematics be taught differently, he says.

Since the mid-1800s the traditional math curriculum in the US has included eight years of arithmetic, a year of algebra, and a year of geometry. But according to Romberg, American schoolchildren are learning math that is hundreds of years out of date.

"The arithmetic we teach through eighth grade is really the arithmetic of the 15th century ... the algebra is from the 17th century, and the geometry? That's pretty much 3rd century BC," Romberg says. Much of what is taught are concepts and procedures that don't always apply to a world that increasingly requires more knowledge in statistics or graphical data, he adds.

The NCRMSE's efforts to restructure math education are part of a large reform movement that is gaining momentum around the country. The movement grew in response to "A Nation at Risk," the National Commission on Excellence in Education's 1983 publication that urged the mathematics community to rethink the teaching and learning of math.

The NCRMSE's purpose is to provide a research base for this national reform movement. The center started five years ago and is funded by the US Department of Education.

Romberg and colleagues developed the project to test new math curricula in local schools after they looked at how other countries teach math. They decided to model the curricula after the Dutch system, because they liked the math materials and examples teachers in The Netherlands use. …