It’s called the “sandwich challenge”: High school math educators must teach their students lessons that connect the fundamental topics they learned in elementary and middle school with the arena of “disciplinary” mathematics taught in college.

“This is a task that might best be compared to trying to build a plane while you’re flying it,” said University of Nebraska Assistant Professor of Mathematics Yvonne Lai, a specialist in mathematical knowledge for teaching.

Lai discussed the difficulties and rewards of connecting students, teachers and content across the spectrum of math education during a Campion Hall lecture last semester – part of the monthly meetings of a unique professional development and mentoring project led by faculty from the Mathematics Department and Lynch School of Education.

Now in its third year, the project--recently highlighted by the Boston Globe--is designed to prepare exemplary math teachers to work in high-need school districts in the Boston area. A $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant supports the program, which pairs each early-career teacher with a master teacher to focus on classroom teaching skills, and a mathematician to work on content mastery.

“We’re calling it a two-way mentoring model,” said Lynch School Associate Professor Lillie Albert, the principal investigator on the project, with co-PIs McIntyre Professor of Mathematics Solomon Friedberg and Associate Professor of Mathematics Chi-Kueng Cheung. “We think we have a unique model that builds knowledge of both content and pedagogy in order to increase student engagement.” 

The project offers professional development through its partners at the non-profit group Math for America Boston, colleagues from Boston University and the Education Development Center of Newton.

The eight early-career teachers spent their first year as Donovan Scholars in the Lynch School’s intensive one-year master’s degree program, which includes placement as a teacher in a local school. The teachers are now working in schools in Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Framingham and Revere. Master math teachers with at least four years of experience mentor them.

The 16 teachers receive stipends of $10,000 a year for up to five years so long as they maintain their commitment to teaching math in a high-needs school district. The stipends are intended to offset any costs, but also to retain math teachers whose skills are in demand in a number of other industries and occupations.

Finally, the teacher pairs are matched with an academic mathematician, including retired faculty from BC and other area universities.

Veteran Brighton High School math teacher Chloe Ford said the program workshops give her the chance to develop new lessons and find solutions to issues ranging from curriculum development to helping students cope with math anxiety. There’s also a welcome emphasis on working through tough math problems.

“I like the emphasis on doing math,” said Ford. “It gives us teachers opportunities to do challenging math problem solving and remember what it is like to be students. In this process we get a chance to collaborate with each other and discuss applications of problem solving within the classroom.”

Beyond the classrooms of BC and area high schools, the program is also focused on developing a professional network of mathematicians in order to support teachers and students in the discipline.

“I am tremendously pleased by the community of teachers that is taking shape,” said Friedberg. “I see our teachers supporting and enriching each other with thoughtful feedback and well-thought-out professional activities, and a community that builds on and joins the expertise of the many individuals concerned with math education. I am also impressed and pleased by the interest of the teachers in deepening their understanding of mathematical topics and incorporating this understanding into their teaching.”

Both Friedberg and Albert hope to secure future funding to extend the program, or deepen their research into the success of their new model and ways to replicate it.

“I think our model is working great, and I would love to expand it, for example taking in a new cohort of master’s students who would then go through the same mentoring,” said Friedberg. “However, it is a challenging environment in terms of funding. We are very fortunate that BC was willing to find the matching funds required by the NSF for our original effort.”