Erica Cardenas

National Science Foundation awards math-science grant for $8.7 million

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a grant for $8.7 million to fund a project in which three of the Maricopa Community Colleges (Scottsdale as the lead, Glendale and Chandler-Gilbert) will create and deliver professional development workshops that will support middle school teachers in advancing their knowledge about the teaching and learning of mathematics.

The project, “Promoting Excellence in Arizona Middle School Mathematics: Increasing Student Achievement through Systemic Instructional Change,” will benefit six Valley middle school districts: Deer Valley, Scottsdale, Fountain Hills, Chandler, Florence, and J.O. Combs school districts, as well as the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Community schools. 

The project is a strategic response to the national 2010 Common Core State Standards Initiative in grades K–12 led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Arizona has embraced these standards as a way to systematically improve teaching and learning to ensure that students are well prepared for future college mathematics courses and for the workforce.

“Teachers will be engaged in activities that promote their understanding of mathematics and connect new ways of thinking with classroom practice,” said Dr. April Strom, Scottsdale Community College (SCC)mathematics professor and principal investigator for the project. “Project activities are designed to build teachers’ knowledge while rejuvenating their excitement about mathematics.”

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According to Strom, workshops will focus on developing teachers’ deep understanding of the big ideas of middle school mathematics. Teachers will be encouraged to shift their thinking about math; rather than regarding math as a set of skills and procedures, math can be thought of as a collection of well-integrated ideas that anchor their curriculum and instruction.

Since 2003, mathematics professors from the Scottsdale and Chandler-Gilbert Community Colleges have provided professional development workshops to over 260 in-service teachers at eight school districts statewide, which have impacted over 10,000 students. The funding for these workshops, now totaling approximately $2 million, came from the U.S. Department of Education and the Arizona Department of Education. 

Dr. James Vicich, SCC mathematics professor and coordinator for the professional development workshops from 2004 to 2011, will serve as Director of Workshops under the new grant. 

“Cottonwood Middle Schools have reported sustained gains in the number of students scoring at the highest level on the AIMS math test, and attributed their success to the district’s collaboration with SCC faculty,” said Vicich. 

“Cottonwood teachers have reported positive impacts on their classroom practices, an increase in their students’ enthusiasm for math, and an increase in their own confidence,” he added.

The new NSF-funded partnership will involve 300 in-service middle school math teachers, 32 middle school math teacher-leaders, 40 middle school administrators and 140 pre-service middle school teachers (education majors at the community colleges). 

Supporting partners are Arizona State University, the Maricopa Community College District, and the Glendale, Mesa and Peoria school districts. The partnership will impact a total of 24,000 students in grades 5–8.

Teachers and administrators will be engaged in workshops that place emphases on conceptual understanding, computational fluency and problem-solving skills for students. The project will help teachers connect what they learn in the workshops with their classroom practice. 

“It is well documented that many students’ attitudes and beliefs about mathematics shift significantly – in the wrong direction – during their middle school years,” said Strom. “This project aims to change this phenomenon by working with teachers to find innovative ways to engage their students and turn their students on to mathematics.

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