STEM Integration in Algebra: A Bridge to Opportunity

Relating mathematical thought processes to those in 21st Century careers

All I can remember from my first year of teaching high school math (2001), was that I was expected to teach memorized steps. The curriculum was dense and assessments were procedural. While I cared deeply about my students’ success, their test scores were mediocre. I could see math was a chore for them. An overwhelming sense of compassion and empathy led me to seek better ways to motivate my students.

Eventually, I gained confidence in teaching the connections and conceptual foundations of mathematics. I wrote my own lesson materials and became less dependent upon textbooks. My students’ assessment scores began to rise. As students spent more time developing and connecting concepts, they needed less practice to retain. However, I still had a significant number of students who didn’t believe math was worth the effort to learn. As an adjunct instructor at the community college during the evenings, I saw some of the same students a few years later, working two jobs to feed their young families and having to take remedial math classes. The whole scenario seemed unfair. Students who understood the difference math would make in their lives worked toward those opportunities. Those who did not understand, suffered.

When the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) draft was released, I dove in to figure out what was changing. I studied the progression documents. In 2014, I enrolled in a doctoral program in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education at the University of Missouri and began to look more intentionally for connections between the thinking process in high school CCSS and thought processes in STEM occupations. I began to explain and demonstrate those connections to my students in an effort to convince them that the math they were learning was useful beyond high school.

My students became more motivated. My literature reviews supported what I was seeing. The CCSS-M freed more time for me to integrate explorations that were realistic enough that my students stopped asking when they would ever use math in real life. At the same time, entrepreneurs from start-up companies were appearing in news briefs, highlighting the need for STEM-capable employees. Educational apps dominated education news as I was learning about them in my doctoral studies. I saw a need for my students to have Chromebooks in class, so I applied for a grant from the Boeing Community Fund. I explained my strategies for motivating my students to develop STEM skills while they learned Algebra, and Boeing expressed their support by granting a classroom set. The progress report I submitted for my first semester teaching with a STEM emphasis reflected a significant shift in my students’ career interests within four months.

Having Chromebooks in my room has increased learning efficiency, allowing more time for problem-based modeling tasks as intended by the CCSS. Not only do those kinds of problems develop 4 Cs skills (4 Cs of 21st Century Learning: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity) associated with STEM, but they also help students understand why so much emphasis needs to be placed on their math class. One student’s comment help me realize the impact when he said, “I see that we really need more math to actually solve problems like this.”

Many high school math teachers are hesitant to spend several days on one activity. However, some activities address a range of standards: well worth the time spent. “Feral cats” is a scenario where students propose questions, pursue answers, and justify conclusions, potentially addressing eight standards. Another scenario about braking distances lists eighteen standards. The added benefit I am seeing is increased student motivation.

Coaching students through the productive struggles of problem-based learning takes time and practice, but teachers who use cooperative learning are well on their way. My suggestion is to start small and grow in complexity using:

  1. Cooperative learning activities
  2. A simple exploration replacing a direct instruction lesson
  3. Tasks that can be solved more than one way or have varying outcomes
  4. Fully open modeling problems where students decide on the questions, the methods, and justify their conclusions

Skills associated with fully open modeling problems are the capstone of the CCSS-M because that is what is needed in a technological society.

As I researched opportunities the Common Core has opened for STEM instruction, I stumbled upon a study that noted an association between taking physics and declaring a STEM major. That association does not necessarily mean that physics increases student interest in STEM careers, but it certainly raises the question. Most high school students take algebra. Given the opportunities for students who are equipped to pursue new and emerging careers, it certainly seems worth our best efforts to increase their awareness of STEM careers in our algebra classes. CCSS have cleared the way.

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About the Author: Lane Walker (@LaneWalker2) is a National Board Certified high school math teacher pursuing her doctorate in STEM curriculum at the University of Missouri. Her thesis, Common Core and STEM Opportunities, has been published in The Mathematics Enthusiast, a peer reviewed journal from the University of Montana. Lane was a 2013 Missouri State Finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She served as a panelist for Common Core Controversies at The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, describing the effects of Common Core State Standards in math classrooms and has presented at State and local conferences. She has assisted with mathematics curriculum development and is a reviewer for Ed Reports.