Solving the equation
MSU helps lead charge in improving U.S. math and science education
General management sophomore and Chinese Student Association President Ruihong Pan discusses his experience attending primary school in China and attending college in America. Pan also offers his opinion on the differences between the two systems, especially in regards to math and science education.
In November, President Barack Obama launched an initiative called “Educate to Innovate,” which will strive to prepare more math and science teachers to make the country more competitive in the two subjects.
As an elementary school student, Hilary Pehrson used to come home from school and tell her parents how she would set up the classroom differently if she were in charge. Now completing an internship to receive her teaching certificate, Pehrson said she has wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember.
But it was Mr. Kudwa, her high school chemistry and math teacher, and his commitment to helping students break down the course material that inspired her to pursue math and science teaching.
“I was kind of like, ‘I want to be the one to inspire kids to pursue those areas,’” she said of the decision.
Pehrson’s motivation to become Mr. Kudwa to her own students reflects the ideals behind a national initiative, “Educate to Innovate,” announced by President Barack Obama in November to make Americans more competitive internationally by training more science and math teachers.
This goal is backed by MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, who signed a letter pledging to train more teachers in those subjects. Simon’s signature is a piece of a university-wide commitment to the initiative’s goals, which includes securing a new grant that will allow the university to train math and science teachers.
Mathematics senior Kristen Zack, middle left, and mathematics senior Erica Myrold observe Holt High School math teacher Craig Huhn as he helps Nathan Wollensak, 15, prepare for an algebra test Tuesday at Holt High School. Zack and Myrold have been in Huhn’s class since October and will both do their student teaching elsewhere next fall.
MSU graduate Hilary Pehrson explains an algebra concept to Codie Puirier, 15, at Holt High School Tuesday. Pehrson is student teaching in Craig Huhn’s classroom this school year to complete her teaching certificate.
American students are about average in fourth grade, below average by eighth grade and at the bottom of the barrel compared to students in other countries by 12th grade, said William Schmidt, a university distinguished professor in statistics and in education.
“When you finish school and get out to work, your competition is worldwide,” he said. “If we’re not preparing our students for that, we are hurting them. And I think our students are the most valuable resource we have.”
MSU Provost Kim Wilcox called the issue one of the century’s biggest challenges and said America must work on getting more students interested in math and science.
“We will not be a leader unless we can improve our national performance in math and science,” Wilcox said.
If the issue is not addressed, the students will not be the only ones affected, Schmidt said. The nation’s economy also could suffer.
Training more math and science teachers, in addition to developing curricula that emphasizes focus, rigor and excellence, likely would help students to perform better, Schmidt said.
At a Jan 6. press conference, Gov. Jennifer Granholm presented MSU as one of six universities selected to participate in the Woodrow Wilson Michigan Teaching Fellowship.
The grant was endorsed by Obama the same day as a program that fits his vision for enhancing the nation’s reputation in math and science education.
The fellowship will provide MSU with a $500,000 grant to train master’s students to teach math and science in hard-to-staff schools in five Michigan school districts.
MSU will match the $500,000 grant to create the new program, which Department of Teacher Education Chairwoman Suzanne Wilson said will fit into the university’s master’s program in teacher education.
The program still is under development, she said.
The university’s selection for the program reflects a long-standing commitment to the idea of improving the quality of teacher education, Wilcox said.
Wilson said another reason MSU stood out is because of the Department of Teacher Education’s openness to innovation and taking risks. A good program constantly is evolving to keep up with the changes occurring in schools, she said.
“When a program that has the status of the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship says, ‘We’re going to work on preparing math and science teachers,’ that’s good company to keep,” Wilson said. “That’s a good challenge. We’re going to make some promises and they’re going to hold us accountable.”
Wilson said although MSU is renowned for teacher education, more can be done.
“This is us saying, ‘You’re right, Mr. President, I think we already do a good job in preparing math and science programs, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do better and we’re going to take this and run with it,’” she said.
Part of the solution
Mathematics senior Kristen Zack often is met with surprise when she tells people her favorite subject is math.
“They would say, ‘Why math? I hate math,’” she said. “People shouldn’t have to hate a subject.”
Zack, who plans to teach high school mathematics after graduation, said she believes anybody can do math, but not everybody can learn the same way.
A good teacher, she said, can make all the difference in a student’s understanding and interest in a subject.
The current “one-size-fits-all” teaching model needs to be tweaked and the grant is an acknowledgment of that fact, said John Helmholdt, spokesman for Grand Rapids Public Schools, one of the five districts selected for the grant. .
“We need to think about not only how we can better prepare students, but how we can better prepare teachers, and that’s what this grant will do,” he said.
“We’ve really slipped as a nation when it comes to math and science preparation. This really is a bigger picture issue and we’re just fortunate to be part of it.”
Kristen Bieda, a mathematics teacher education professor, said research and experience shows good teaching benefits a student’s understanding of a subject.
“I even encounter with my own students anecdote after anecdote where they decide to be a math teacher because they had a math teacher who really made a difference, went the extra mile to help them learn something,” she said.
“Because at some point they were struggling with math and they had a teacher that believed in them and worked with them.”