Give kids a task—or a math problem—and it’s more likely to excite them if they understand its importance. For students who aspire to be video game designers or architects, that means showing them math matters. Otherwise they may not even realize the tools needed to achieve their dream STEAM careers.
In teaching math, the age-old question is: “When I am ever going to use this?” says Connie Schrock, president of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics and professor of mathematics at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas. “It’s important to make sure the math curriculum is rich and relevant,” she says. “They need to learn to apply the mathematics they are learning in a variety of situations with multiple representations.”
Nicole Webb, principal for Mojave River Academy, a K–12 charter school in Bakersfield, California, says kids have a desire to learn math when they’re given the opportunity to experience it. “If students can be shown that all the information they are being taught in science, and especially in math, is meant to reveal secrets behind the ways that things work and do activities that inspire them, it can make a difference in their mindset,” Webb says.
Create Meaningful Projects
The best results come when teachers create STEAM activities using math and science skills that are on grade level, suggests Schrock. Rather than overloading teachers, she suggests working as a team to create authentic projects that meet the outcomes for math and science.
“You don’t have to integrate all subjects every time, but it has to be quality,” says Schrock. She also cautions against trivializing the math. “Because people are trying to find an engaging activity, sometimes they let the other components slide a bit.”
Make STEAM Lesson Links
Framing a new math skill with a real-world application can draw students in from the get-go. The Sadlier Math curriculum opens each chapter of its textbook with bold photos, fun facts, and ideas for further research. A “STEAM Connection” is woven into the lesson plan.
For instance, when students learn about place value, they compare populations of U.S. cities and round the data. Division concepts are applied to gas mileage in cars. Multiplication skills are used to predict the number of hours of energy efficiency in a project about skyscrapers. It concludes with encouraging students to use their imagination to come up with ideas for sustainability.
Integrate Rich Tasks Across Disciplines
Kids respond when math lessons are anchored in real-life scenarios and incorporate different subjects, says Natalie Crist, supervisor of elementary school mathematics in Baltimore County Public Schools. With their 1:1 technology model, students in the district use devices to watch initial videos before diving into lessons. A clip of someone shooting basketballs can trigger wondering before learning about arcs and angles.
There are also low-tech assignments using maps and charts. Connecting math to science and social sciences, teachers create a project for students to track bird migration. Another requires them to read maps, look at elevation data, and plan a hiking trip. “It’s beyond just solving problems. It excites them when it connects to real life,” says Crist of the interdisciplinary approach.
Touch, Feel, Move
Lauren May, head of school at Arlington Community Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, oversees kids from pre-K through fourth grade, where 97 percent of children receive free and reduced lunch. Manipulatives, choice, and freedom are ingredients that motivate her students in math. “Our kids are very tactile learners. They need to be moving—it helps them remember,” May says. “It adds visualization to have actual blocks to move and count. Looking at picture on paper is not as effective.”
May created a STEM lab in the school. It has a LEGO wall for hands-on projects, including one where students pretend they are architects and rebuild the school. They can learn the basics of coding with games and technology in the computer lab.
Leveraging Community Experts
Hearing how professionals use math skills in their STEAM careers can help kids recognize the value of math. May invited the director of the local Boys & Girls Club, who explained how he makes budget decisions by taking into consideration money, number of students, and possible expenses, like purchasing toys.
When Arlington Academy got a grant from Target and KabOOM! for a new playground, kids were invited to draw their dream playground and a parent who is in the construction business was invited to speak about his work. “I tell students we use math all day, every day,” May says.
At Mojave River, after students learn about chemical properties and reactions, they go to the local Creamistry, where they make ice cream with liquid nitrogen in front of customers so students can see those properties in motion, says Webb. Students also use animation software that’s used in Hollywood to create animations and use a 3-D printer to create designs. Full activity days are set aside for “The Cardboard Challenge” and “Hour of Code.” Webb says students work hard at understanding the math and science behind these projects because they are linked to activities they enjoy.
Schrock underscores the importance of choice. As kids get older, she suggests giving them a content area and goal and letting them develop a project that interests them. “Then they can see how someone in a STEM field would put into practice something without having everything lined up for them,” says Schrock.
Math Talk and Reflection
Kids come at math problems in different ways, and good instruction provides time to discuss and rethink approaches, says Bill Barnes, chief academic officer for Howard County Public Schools in Maryland. “There is a greater focus now on executive functioning skills including collaboration and teamwork, as well as vocabulary and writing. “They have become as important as match content itself,” says Barnes, who was the county’s math coordinator and curriculum director before taking his current post. Rather than the teacher always lecturing, students become peer experts who can talk to one another about problems. He advocates space in the classroom to put out ideas, propose alternatives, test, and retest.
Sadlier Math helps teachers get their students talking about math—especially the various ways to solve a problem. Its structure makes it easy for teachers to offer guided practice and to encourage their students to do more than find a solution. By thinking about what pathway or method got them to an answer, students justify (and check) their approach.
Teaching Students to Think
Students today may cycle through many jobs, and experts say math can be a useful skill to adapt. “Sometimes we spend so much time preparing students for their first careers that they are lacking skills for their second and third,” says Schrock. “Mathematics has power in the ability to help people be able to transform their lives and to change along the way as they learn.”
Crist says teachers are moving away from rote learning. They are instead emphasizing a deeper understanding of problem-solving and how to apply math. Moving beyond the basics, she wants students to be prepared and resilient. “If you can solve a problem without having to think it through, it’s not a problem,” says Crist. “In the future, we will be presented with problems we haven’t even thought out. We have to prepare kids for the thinking piece.”