Why Do We Have To Do Math in Science Class?

Posted 12/04/12
Last updated 12/04/12

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Abstract: 

Using a project-based learning approach, this team of high school teachers from different disciplines collaborated to identify an area in which their students needed work, then developed a cross-curricular project to address it.

In 2009, Howard County (Maryland) Public School System partnered with NASA and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) to launch the original pilot of Learning Studios –a system of project-based learning environments in which interdisciplinary, cross-curricular teams of 4-6 teachers from the same school address a selected learning challenge.

studentsThe project started with two schools in this district, but has since  expanded to include teams from four high schools and two middle schools, creating projects to investigate a range of issues related to climate change.  Currently  NCTAF also works with eight other districts and a total of 34 Learning Studios. (at this point in time).

The Centennial High School Learning Team is one of these original teams, and now currently consists of six teachers who represent the science, math, technology, and computer science disciplines. These educators work together to identify areas of student weakness and then develop relevant project-based learning opportunities that extend across their different classrooms.

During the 2011-2012 school year, the teachers chose projects based on an analysis of the Common Core State Standards and the realization that argumentative writing was an area in need of strengthening. The team also selected the 21st century skill of collaboration among students to be a key focus of their cross-disciplinary unit.

Traditionally, these teachers would be teaching their respective course curricula in isolation, but their current work as a collaborative team calls for them to disassemble each curriculum into its component parts and then reassemble them into real-world projects that connect across these classrooms.

In their Fall 2011 project on climate change, students worked in groups with at least one student from every STEM discipline represented. The review-level biology/earth science students worked with the technology students to provide them with background information about climate change and also calculated their carbon footprint. The engineering students assisted in project management and the design process of the project, and math students graphed data showing changes in global temperatures and CO2 levels over time.

Members of each team then came to a conclusion about the causes of climate change.  The technology class built flash websites, and the project culminated with the student groups presenting and defending their findings—just like a climate change conference that an actual scientist might attend.

It is this “actual scientist” perspective that adds additional relevance to the students’ work, as NASA scientists contribute to the planning of these interdisciplinary projects and often provide guest presentations as experts in the field.

A key challenge faced by Centennial High School’s Learning Team has been determining how to teach to a common topic across their individual classrooms when their courses do not contain a common set of students. Unlike the elementary or middle school classroom setting in which teachers share common students by design, any instances in which teachers share students in Centennial’s classrooms occur almost by accident, as the computer assigns students to schedules largely based on student choice during registration. As a result, only a handful of  team members' class rosters include students who attend class with other teachers from the team.

The teachers have been creative with how they continue the interdisciplinary connections across classes despite having different class rosters. By examining their rosters each semester in search of overlapping students, the teachers have been able draw these students into leadership roles in the classroom. For example, the science teacher is able to ask the students who are also enrolled in the Learning Studio’s Team math class to teach the data analysis process needed for documentation in an upcoming science lab.

When rosters do not contain any overlap at all, the teachers videotape portions of key lessons from one class that can then be shown in another class to provide the cross-content framing necessary for the lesson. The students are empowered as they take on the expert role in the classroom and cross-content connections become more visible. [Listen as team leader Lori Griffith describes the work and the benefits of the Centennial High School Learning Studio team.]  

NCTAF facilitates three consecutive days in the summer when the teams develop their year-long project-based learning opportunities and then an additional full-day session during each quarter of the school year.

During these highly-valued quarterly meetings, the teachers examine the data from the Howard County quarterly assessments along with their own observations as feedback to drive their ongoing work.  Resources such as the NSTA K12 Science Framework and the Buck Institute on Project-Based Learning provide the structure for evaluating student work as well as their own teaching practice.

The Centennial High School Learning Studio team is incredibly grateful for these seven days each year to fully focus on their interdisciplinary projects. However, they continue to cite “time” as one of their most persistent challenges. It is challenging to stay the course and maintain momentum without frequent opportunities to focus on the work of the team. It is also challenging to squeeze in these lessons amid school-wide activities such as quarterly exams, assemblies, fire drills, and other expected and unexpected interruptions to the instructional day.

Because there is not a common planning time built into the school day, the team leader of Centennial’s team organizes and leads after-school meetings at least once a month to continue the collaborative momentum in between the quarterly NCTAF sessions. The drive to continue moving forward comes from the benefits of learning about the curriculum and practices of other teachers in the building as well as knowing that because of this work, students are gaining a real-world understanding of the connections between math, English  language arts, science, and technology.