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, 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 handson 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 multifaceted College of Engineering project that focuses
on improving the math competencies of students at the middleschool
and highschool 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 K14 Learning Grid database and a series of workshops for teachers.
Funded by a threeyear 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.
“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, 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 mathphobics,” 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.
“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 200203 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.

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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