Math-Teaching Effort Set To Enter Next Phase

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

After a successful start, a national initiative directed by the Boston College Mathematics Institute seeking to reshape the teaching of mathematics in American schools is about to enter its next phase of operation.

"The Implementation of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standard in Discrete Mathematics" recently received a National Science Foundation grant of $736,774 for additional support. Since 1992, the project has been awarded more than $3.2 million from the NSF.

The aim of the project is to train teachers in the instruction of discrete mathematics, which is widely used in many professional fields. During the weekend of March 16 and 17, the first group of project participants gathered at the University to discuss their impressions and relate experiences in implementing their training.

"We've been very encouraged by what we've seen so far," said Prof. Margaret Kenney (Mathematics), the project director and a research associate at the institute. "The project has touched a great number of teachers and students, and we're looking to broaden this outreach over the next couple of years."

Discrete mathematics focuses less on computational skills than on data-gathering and problem-solving, and encompasses subjects such as graph theory, accounting techniques and linear algebra, Kenney said. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics strongly endorsed discrete mathematics in a 1989 report outlining new standards for curriculum and teaching, which served as the project's blueprint.

Prof. Margaret Kenney (Mathematics) is leading the project. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

To prepare schools for adopting discrete mathematics, the project has sponsored summer workshops during the past three years for mathematics teachers in grades 7-12 at several sites across the country, including at Boston College. Participants are expected to hold at least one instructional workshop with teachers at their respective schools, and introduce discrete mathematics concepts to their students.

About 385 teachers took part in the first phase, Kenney said, and through them the project has reached about 12,700 teachers and 22,000 students. Nearly all the teachers who attended the 1995 Boston College workshop came for this month's follow-up session, where they discussed issues they have encountered and exchanged ideas.

One teacher from Nashua, NH, described how she used quilts to illustrate discrete mathematics, Kenney said, because they require students to employ counting and patterning skills. Kenney noted that teachers in the school found her techniques could be applied in other courses as well, which is a key component of discrete mathematics.

"Besides fostering problem-solving skills, discrete mathematics is also useful in encouraging team-work," Kenney said. "It is a way of connecting disciplines. So, as we begin to re-conceptualize mathematics as an integrated field, discrete mathematics serves as a model."

Participants also discussed the impact of technology on teaching discrete mathematics, Kenney said, from the World Wide Web and other Internet tools to new calculators which simplify graph and chart-making.

The second phase of the project will continue focusing on secondary school teachers, Kenney said, but will also include collegiate faculty who teach mathematics or mathematics education courses to future teachers. These faculty, she explained, are likely to have more opportunities to provide training workshops in discrete mathematics.

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