National Science Foundation $5 Million Grant Aimed at Engaging Young Minds to be Successful at Math

National Science Foundation $5 Million Grant Aimed at Engaging Young Minds to be Successful at Math


Middle school math class can make or break a student’s success in mathematics and the many subjects based on it.

A good middle school experience typically prepares and motivates students to excel in high school and post-secondary math courses. A bad experience can turn that same student off to a subject that is not only the basis for well-paying, in-demand careers in science, engineering and technology, but essential for understanding the world around us.

And once a middle schooler disengages from studying math, it can be very difficult to catch up.

Professor Amy Cohen and her math and education colleagues have seen this happen way too often to students they know are capable of succeeding at math. Last fall, they won a $5 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) aimed at strengthening middle school math education.

“The middle grades are a time when kids are being asked to understand things, not just memorize them,” said Cohen, mathematics professor in the School of Arts and Sciences. “It’s also a time when kids firm up values and impressions. We want them to understand math and feel that it’s worthwhile.”

Middle school math teachers Robert Birkitt and Laura Lee Yacullo discuss ways to teach middle schoolers the concept of 'pi' during a class led by Rutgers Prof. Gerald Goldin, center.
The NSF grant is funding a program called the New Jersey Partnership for Excellence in Middle School Mathematics. A group of 26 teachers from seven school districts joined the program this spring to deepen their understanding of math and boost their teaching skills. Three more teacher groups will join the program over the next three spring semesters.

On Tuesday, April 27, participants are gathering for a kickoff celebration with Rutgers leaders and officials from state and federal government.

“The grant reflects the National Science Foundation’s priority to integrate research with education and train tomorrow’s scientists and engineers,” said Michael Pazzani, vice president of Research and Graduate and Professional Education.

Middle school math instruction has suffered from a lack of consistency in teacher preparation, Cohen said.

“Teachers are all over the map in terms of their qualifications,” she said. “Some are certified to teach at the high school level, but others were prepared to teach elementary grades and later assigned to middle school math.” She believes that teachers hired for these grades need to be specifically prepared for the job.

Cohen is principal investigator on the grant, and she is working closely with Professor Gerald Goldin, director of science and mathematics partnerships at Rutgers.

“It’s a time when students come to see themselves as capable in math and able to move forward,” said Goldin, who also holds faculty appointments in mathematics, physics and education. “We want to reach those teachers who influence students at this critical stage in their lives.”

The program provides courses and summer institutes where the teachers and Rutgers researchers will explore mathematical concepts and issues specific to middle school math teaching. The teachers can apply their course work and institute participation toward a master’s degree in mathematics education.

The program also will prepare teachers to take on leadership roles in their districts, sharing their new knowledge and skills with colleagues.

“We are ultimately looking at what works and what doesn’t work, over the long term, when we introduce new ideas into the classroom,” he said.

Participating teachers are eager to apply the ideas they learn and generate.

“We’re looking at the ‘why’ of math, at ways to solve problems,” said Robert Birkitt, who teaches eighth grade math at Plainfield’s Maxson Middle School. “As teachers, we need to develop these skills in our students.”

“This helps me understand how children perceive math,” said Christine Keil, who teaches eighth grade at Toms River Intermediate North School. “It will make me better at addressing their needs.”

This year’s teachers come from schools in Carteret, Long Branch, Old Bridge, Orange, Plainfield, Sayreville and Toms River. Additional communities may be represented in the future groups. Within each group, teachers will take courses for three semesters and participate in two summer institutes.

Joining Cohen as co-investigators on the grant are Michael Beals, professor of mathematics and vice dean of the School of Arts and Sciences – New Brunswick; Joan Bennett, professor of plant biology and pathology and associate vice president in the Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics; John Coleman, curriculum supervisor with the Toms River School District; and Carolyn Maher, professor of mathematics education in the Graduate School of Education.

The project was developed by Rutgers and the participating school districts through collaboration between the Department of Mathematics, the Graduate School of Education and the Center for Mathematics, Science and Computer Education.

Media Contact: Carl Blesch
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