Teachers learn to make math fun, engaging

"If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow." - John Dewey

“When will I ever use this in my real life?” is a plaintive question students often pose to their math teachers. For over 20 area elementary and middle school teachers, the “Engage, Learn, and Connect Math Topics” summer workshop at The College of St. Scholastica (CSS) provided teachers some solid ways to respond to that perennial question.

St. Scholastica’s School of Science received a $45,240 grant from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. The funds are being used for the 2017-2018 “Improving Teacher Quality Program” project to engage Duluth-area elementary and middle school mathematics teachers in high-quality learning and reflection to improve their teaching skills and capacity.

The new initiative is the latest in a series of efforts by CSS faculty to strengthen teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

Open to math and special education teachers and paraprofessionals, the seven-day July workshop  gave participants the opportunity to breathe new life into math classes by showing them how to expand their toolboxes with ideas and strategies to engage students.

Each of the participants also received a small stipend, materials, a Chromebook for their schools and continuing education credits for attending the workshop.

Donna Kirk, a CSS math department instructor, is in charge of the workshop.

“I have a particular passion for STEM education. We want to help kids see how math and science can be meaningful. It is also important for them to explore all the career paths in the field that can be open to them by showing them the real world applications and the relevance of math,” Kirk said. “Engagement is key. There is no one size fits all approach to teaching. Workshops like ours help to bridge some gaps and help teachers dispel some misconceptions of what it means to study math.”

Kirk explained that even if students do not go on to pursue math or science for their careers, the skills and problem-solving techniques they obtain through studying math and science can help them in many other academic areas.                  

Eric Mistry, CSS instructional technologist and digital media specialist, was part of the team working on this summer’s workshop.

“I enjoyed working with teachers on ways to combine their pedagogy with technology to get richer results. It really takes a team to demonstrate how teachers can better use the technology available to them. We are here to help teachers save time and be up to date on the innovations in the field,” he said.

“The technologies are just exploding. With the workshop, we hoped to help teachers use technology wisely to help them in the classroom and to get their students excited,” said Kirk.

The chance to collaborate with colleagues and to continue communication between grade levels and schools are also important elements of the workshop. Participants had the opportunity to transform a lesson plan or unit plan to enhance engagement and learning and to share those plans with each other.

“Teachers recognize and value collaboration with each other. They don’t want to be in solitary ‘silos.’ We are thrilled to collaborate with the teachers and to have them share their best ideas with each other as well. We set up Goggle folders so they can continue to find ideas for concepts and topics any time,” Kirk said.

Katie Hutchison, a math teacher at Lincoln Park School, is back for a second summer after working last year on a STEM camp experience with students building rockets in the “Shoot for the Stars program,” also sponsored by St. Scholastica.

“Having worked with Donna before, I had such a good experience that I was excited to be in the workshop this summer. One of the great benefits of this workshop is to learn from other teachers, to get their ideas on how they teach math to their students using a variety of techniques. It is important to change the mindset that some kids have about math that keeps them from succeeding,” Hutchison said. “We are also all looking for ways to open the range of possibilities of the many things kids can do with science and math. We want to help them understand how many different careers are open to them in the science and technology fields.”

Kirk noted, “It is important for our society to prepare kids for the jobs of the future. There are new jobs that don’t even exist yet that will come as a result of the new ideas in the math and science fields. We want to engage students so they know they can succeed in those fields and to prepare them to be ready for the new opportunities yet to come.”