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It All Adds Up: Rocket launchers and other gadgets show teenagers the relevance of math


When Abel Villarreal was a school kid in the Rio Grande Valley, he was just like many of the students in his class: He hated math. Fortunately, Villarreal had two uncles who were math teachers, and when he got stuck, he’d turn to them for help. The first thing his uncles would do was to toss his textbook aside. Then they’d set about teaching him math by getting him involved with real life examples of how the math worked.

AIM project director Mary Crawford and math teacher Abel Villarreal prepare a water rocket launcher

AIM project director Mary Crawford and math teacher Abel Villarreal prepare a water rocket launcher, one of several gadgets that help students learn complex math concepts.

Photo: Marsha Miller

Today Villarreal is a math teacher at Austin’s Johnston High School, and the hands-on teaching techniques he encountered with his uncles decades ago are at play in the workshops he has both attended and assisted in creating in the Achievement in Mathematics (AIM) for Engineering project at The University of Texas at Austin.

AIM is a multi-faceted College of Engineering project that focuses on improving the math competencies of students at the middle-school and high-school level to better prepare them for advanced work in engineering and other technical fields. It includes the college’s Women in Engineering Program, an Equal Opportunity in Engineering program, the K-14 Learning Grid database and a series of workshops for teachers.

Funded by a three-year grant from the GE Foundation, AIM targets schools in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) with high populations of traditionally underserved students. AIM workshops are designed to give teachers in those schools a way of approaching math that will be relevant and engaging for their students. Students are involved in exciting activities such as launching water rockets and creating models with gears. They learn math concepts by seeing these gadgets in action.

Lego model comprised of gears and levers

“In most math classes the math is so pulled away from the reality it represents,” says Mary Crawford, project manager for AIM. “It’s very powerful when you start seeing the relationship between abstract mathematical concepts and something concrete, and that you can use it for something practical. There is always a reason for doing the math, and in many classes that has been stripped out. We’re trying to add some of that back in.”

Improving the way mathematics is taught is not simply about helping students enjoy their time in the classroom. It’s a critical issue on a national level. Studies show that fewer students are prepared for advanced studies in engineering and other technical fields, and enrollment numbers in engineering have been declining for a decade. A study by ACT said, “A declining pool of qualified engineering students may threaten America’s position as a world leader in engineering.”

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal quotes NASA head Sam O’Keefe as saying that 25 percent of NASA’s science and engineering workforce will be eligible to retire within five years. With NASA scientists and engineers older than 60 outnumbering those younger than 30 by nearly three to one, the shrinking number of science and engineering graduates is of great concern for the organization.

John Jensen demonstrates the effects of centrifugal force using a Lego model

John Jensen, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, demonstrates the effects of centrifugal force using a Lego model.

Math preparedness is considered a key issue in encouraging students to enter engineering and technical fields and keeping them in the fields once they begin their studies. Educational organizations, including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, have been looking closely at how math is taught and how it affects math preparedness.

“Mathematics as a whole has this image of creating math-phobics,” says Villarreal. “It is a difficult thing, and everybody’s afraid of it and only geniuses do it. There’s that image of math being hard and stuffy and academic, and kids say, ‘I shouldn’t be there.’ Maybe these activities we are creating will help it make sense.”

When students launch water rockets on the lawn outside their schools, they first estimate a rocket’s height using skills from geometry and trigonometry. They do a series of launches with different amounts of water and different pressures and graph the data using quadratic equations. Using calculus skills, students can predict the rocket height for any given pressure and amount of water or determine the pressure and the amount of water needed to achieve a target height.

Small catapult used to demonstrate math concepts

“We will reach more kids with each module than if we say ‘We are going to turn to chapter two on page 35 and work this problem,’” says Anita Warner, who works with ninth graders in a credit recovery program at Lanier High School in Austin. “Even if students aren’t interested in the math, they’re still going to be interested in how far a rocket can launch or how far something can fly out of a catapult. They will be tricked into learning the math, and then what they’ll realize is that they can actually do the math.”

For the 2002-03 academic year, AIM offered AISD teachers in selected schools four workshops in algebra and four in calculus, and it expects to offer a similar number of workshops in the upcoming academic year. Workshops are taught by Richard Crawford, a professor of mechanical engineering, and Marilyn Fowler, both of whom have worked with the College of Engineering’s Design Technology and Engineering for America’s Children (DTEACh) for 10 years. Like DTEACh, AIM offers professional development opportunities for teachers that they may not find elsewhere.

Four high school students make final preparations for the launch of their rocket

Students at Austin’s Johnson (LBJ) High School make final preparations for the launch of their rocket.

Teachers leave an AIM workshop having learned how to use a gadget—a rocket launcher or catapult or gear kit—to teach their students and with the equipment they need to bring the activity to their classrooms. This summer, Villarreal, Warner and Mary Crawford are working to expand the modules to include overviews, lesson plans, grading plans and other useful tools for teachers.

Working with AISD teachers on expanding the modules is just one way that AIM has engaged the school district. Norma Jost, an alumnus of the College of Engineering and secondary math supervisor at AISD, was a key player in writing the grant and getting the word out about AIM.

“We wanted to address the issue of math preparedness in a way that might actually make a difference,” says Kathy Schmidt, who directs the College of Engineering Faculty Innovation Center, which coordinates AIM. “So we worked closely with the school district in developing the proposal, and we looked at the current research on what is working in the classroom.”

As AIM enters its second year of workshops, it hopes to attract more teachers and enter more classrooms, helping students see that math isn’t just about numbers in a textbook, but that there is a real reason for learning. The more students in Austin and elsewhere learn not just how to do math, but why to do math, the better chance there is for more qualified applicants to enter engineering and technical fields.

“When they finish the class, I hope they say, ‘This was fun,’” says Villarreal. “‘It was hard work for me, but I didn’t mind doing it because I saw that there was a “Why?” that finally got answered.’”

Vivé Griffith

Photos courtesy AIM for Engineering

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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