Morgridge, NSM faculty get $300,000 grant to help math and science teachers
February 6, 2012
By: Tamara Chapman 

When it comes to teaching math and science to elementary and middle school children, even classroom pros can struggle to help students understand the complex concepts that characterize these disciplines.

Thanks to the efforts of Associate Professor Kent Seidel and Assistant Professor Nicole Russell, both of DU’s Morgridge College of Education, help may be on the way.

Collaborating with their colleagues in the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) and the Morgridge College, Seidel and Russell are piloting a professional-development program designed to empower math and science teachers in Denver Public Schools (DPS). It does so by helping them understand how learners progress through math and science content and where their understanding may be derailed. At the same time, it builds leadership capacity within schools, creating a community of teachers versed in problem solving.

“What we really want is for teachers to better understand the content from the kids’ perspective,” Seidel explains, noting that the program initially will benefit schools serving at-risk students.

To bring their ideas into classrooms, Seidel and Russell have secured a $307,299 Elementary and Secondary Education Act Title II Improving Teacher Quality grant. Distributed through the Colorado Department of Education, the federal funds will underwrite development and implementation of the program. The grant ends Dec. 31, 2012, though Seidel and Russell will extend their work for six months to assess student achievement data.

Seidel and Russell pursued this particular grant because it emphasizes collaboration among entities. “First and foremost,” Seidel explains, “this is a partnership. These grants, by design, have to have three partners.” In this case, the Morgridge faculty supplies its expertise in teaching effectiveness, while the NSM faculty (Keith Miller of chemistry and biochemistry; Nancy Sasaki of biological sciences; Jeff Farmer and Allegra Reiber of mathematics) brings its subject-area expertise to the table. DPS, meanwhile, brings expert math and science educators to the design and teaching teams. In addition, it has worked with the partners to identify schools that can make maximum use of the program.

Rather than lecture teachers about effective classroom strategies, as many professional development programs do, Seidel and Russell plan to rely on teachers for input, insights and leadership to shape effective interventions. “We really are trying to do something very cutting-edge by allowing this to be driven by the teachers of the district,” Russell explains, noting that teachers represent a source of underutilized expertise.

Seidel agrees. “There’s a lot of untapped potential in the schools that is locked behind classroom doors,” he says.

The project will begin work with math and science teacher-leaders from the selected schools. Together, they will explore the cognitive road maps students follow, or abandon, on their way to understanding. In other words, they’ll examine the many ways that students can misunderstand course content.

“We want teachers to really know all these bizarre permutations around the content in order to help kids do better,” Seidel explains.

They also will exchange classroom observations and report on tactics that succeed. Finally, they’ll learn how to connect their new tactics to the curriculum and to state standards.

When they return to their schools, they’ll work with their PLCs, or professional learning communities, which are aimed at boosting teacher interaction. Community members will share their findings, mentor one another and explore the different ways students begin to understand math and science concepts. They’ll collaborate to diagnose why students aren’t getting certain concepts and devise new tactics for explaining those concepts. Too often, Seidel and Russell say, teachers resort to repeating their initial explanations, not realizing that the student may require a different onramp to the material.

“This is matching the content to the kids’ needs,” Seidel says. “If we are successful, we hope to see students achieve beyond what they might have otherwise.”

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