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EducationGearing Up for Math
Gearing Up for Math: Professional Development Builds Capacity

By DeAnna Beane

"Lack of mathematical literacy...raises serious issues for our nation's production of scientifically literate citizens and workers at every level ... [and] is attracting the attention of the scientific and business community to an extent not seen since A Nation at Risk."
—Elizabeth Stage, Director, Lawrence Hall of Science

The CEO needs to be up front that math is an essential literacy for the future, for public participation, for the economic future of our youth and our workforce."
—Eric Jolly, President, Science Museum of Minnesota

Math Momentum Workshop

At the Math Momentum in Science Centers Institute held in Miami, Florida, in March 2005, participants complete an activity from Robert Moses' Algebra Project.
Photo courtesy Miami Museum of Science & Planetarium

As panelists in the 2005 ASTC Annual Conference session "Gearing Up for Mathematics in Science Centers: A View from the Top," Elizabeth Stage and Eric Jolly highlighted the "mathematics achievement gap" and offered a compelling case for why U.S. science centers should be working with their communities toward a national goal of giving all children, particularly those from underserved populations, increased levels of proficiency in mathematics. Their charge to the field—delivered in a session devoted to strategies for introducing or enhancing mathematics experiences for staff—was a reminder of how much more remains to be done.

Seven years ago, prompted by the absence of mathematics in ASTC's science-rich YouthALIVE! programs and by the 1997 report detailing the poor showing of U.S. secondary students in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), ASTC first invited conversations on the role of science centers in mathematics education. Those conversations led to the 2001 publication of Andrea Anderson's Mathematics in Science Centers; to the formation of the Math Special Interest Group that meets annually at ASTC's conference; and, ultimately, to ASTC's participation from 2002 to 2005 in Building Math Momentum in Science Centers (MMSC), a three-year, National Science Foundation-funded, mathematics professional development project led by the education research and development organization TERC.

Although summative evaluation of MMSC is forthcoming, several lessons have already emerged for ASTC staff from the observations, interviews, and reflections of participating museum professionals, as well as from the "Gearing Up for Mathematics" session noted above. This article, based on those lessons, is grounded in the "can-do spirit" manifested by the 13 MMSC science centers.

Acknowledge math anxiety

"One of the important to make sure you take care of people who are afraid of math on your staff and, in particular, to help to expand their understanding of what math is."
—Anders Liljeholm, OMSI math team

Math anxiety cannot be ignored! (See "Let's Replace Math Phobia with Math Appreciation," ASTC Dimensions, January/February 2006.) This was the number-one institutional challenge identified by most staff and directors involved in the MMSC project. At their first workshops, professionals who felt quite comfortable developing engaging experiences in informal science did not necessarily exude confidence about their ability to address mathematics in similar ways.

In late 2005, when the teams were asked to reflect on their MMSC experiences, one team said that if they could start over, they would add another project layer in which the entire staff would learn and understand how much math (i.e., math education) has changed. Several others spoke of how helpful it was to observe visitors, other staff, volunteers, or children as they engaged in math exhibits and/or activities. An indication of their newfound confidence could be heard in the voices of the team that summed up its experience by saying, "Now math is in our minds and in the mind of our institution"—a conclusion echoed by others.

Encourage interdepartmental collaboration

"When I laid out my 'Ruling Reptiles' idea to our team and explained that I wanted visitors to do what scientists do in the field, the team's educators came up with strategies for better relating the math concepts to the visitors, particularly children who have no idea of how long a foot or yard is."
—Carlos Plaza, Miami Museum of Science & Planetarium math team

Each of the MMSC institutions appointed a three-person, interdepartmental mathematics team for the project. Composition of the teams and participants' previous math experience varied (and attrition was a challenge for several teams), but the presence of an exhibits specialist and an educator on each team lent consistency over time. At least eight teams included a youth programs specialist as well.

Team members were charged with finding appropriate ways of applying in their science centers what they were learning in the MMSC workshops. Specifically, they were to identify at least one science program or exhibit that could be "mathematized"—i.e., have its inherent mathematics made explicit. (See "Finding the Math: A Math Momentum Sampler," ASTC Dimensions, January/February 2006.) All of the teams, even those without math expertise, were creative in recruiting others to help them with this task.

The Sciencenter team, for example, invited a group of dedicated, math-savvy volunteers to help them develop their "How Quick Are You?" reaction time tester. The team at Boston's Museum of Science organized brown bag lunches to garner advice and support from other departments. The exhibits and education departments at OMSI already had a tradition of collaborating on exhibit ancillaries, but MMSC team members said coordinating math efforts would have been more difficult without the joint professional development. "It made a difference to have advocacy on both exhibits and education simultaneously, rather than having to build on one and then bring in the other," they concluded.

Utilize external resources

"Rice University School Mathematics Project saw [our museum] as a partner that could...engage families in hands-on exploration of math's real-world connections as they pertain to each of the strands of math learning identified by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics."
—Tammie Kahn, Director, Children's Museum of Houston

Some MMSC institutions drew on the mathematics resources of local engineers, volunteers, or universities—balancing that expertise by recruiting math educators from local school districts to brainstorm, review plans, clarify mathematics concepts, or determine the age-appropriateness of proposed exhibits or programs.

The Principles and Standards for School Mathematics developed by the (U.S.) National Council of Teachers of Mathematics provided a common language for dialogue between formal and informal educators. A few math team members attended NCTM conferences or workshops, and some began to align their work with the NCTM standards or those developed by their states.

At the 2005 "Gearing Up for Mathematics" session, panelist Linda Gojak, president of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, assured her listeners that formal math educators would be "thrilled" to assist local science centers. Science provides a context for presenting mathematics in a way that is meaningful to kids, Gojak said, adding that the NCTM "Process Standards" (problem solving, reasoning and proof, communication, connections, and representations) are tangible areas in which science centers can help students and classroom teachers.

Support 'mathematics awareness' from the top

"[As CEO] you have to provide the leadership, you have to provide the resources, you have to support people putting math in their professional-development planning, and you have to create the partnerships."
—Eric Jolly, President, Science Museum of Minnesota

Mathematics cannot become a strategic priority in any science center or museum without the support of upper-level management. Only advocacy by a CEO and/or senior staff can ensure the creation of a "math culture." Such a culture evolves through professional development that helps staff focus on math concepts and their applications for science centers and also fosters awareness of the larger context for this work. Mathematics standards, local mathematics curricula, and equity issues associated with local achievement gaps in mathematics are contextual issues that require attention as staff capacity grows.

From the start, senior staff at the MMSC science centers were committed to the concept of math inclusion. Vice presidents from eight institutions participated in project workshops at some point during the three years. CEOs received regular updates from their math teams and met annually during the ASTC conference to review progress and offer suggestions for fieldwide capacity building.

One recommendation was to develop an exhibit and progam design protocol that includes mathematics. If we are to broaden the pool of museum professionals who have the comfort and competence in mathematics to create and apply such tools effectively, top-level support for ongoing professional development is essential.

Math Momentum in Science Centers: Participants and Projects

Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo, New York
Mathtodons & Co. (see "Finding the Math: A Math Momentum Sampler,"ASTC Dimensions, January/February 2006)

Children's Museum of Houston, Houston, Texas
Bubble Math: 10 facilitated bilingual kits that engage families in activities focusing on geometry, measurement, data collection, and problem solving.

Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Ft. Worth, Texas
Lone Star Dinosaur Family Activity Guide (see "Finding the Math: A Math Momentum Sampler," ASTC Dimensions, January/February 2006)

Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley, California
"Forces That Shape the Bay" Activities: A set of inquiry-based, hands-on activities focusing on measurement, proportionality, and proportional reasoning, created to accompany an existing outdoor exhibit.

Miami Museum of Science & Planetarium, Miami, Florida
Ruling Reptiles!: A program that allows visitors to explore how scientists use measurement and data collection in crocodilian research and how that relates to conservation of species in the Florida Everglades.

Museum of Life and Science, Durham, North Carolina
"Cyberchase" Workshops in a Box, incorporating footage from the TV series with companion math activities as part of the museum's after-school programming for students from low-income areas of the city.

Museum of Science, Boston, Massachusetts
Math in Museum of Science Exhibits: Resources for Educators: "Mathematical Questions & Things to Do," mapped to the NCTM standards, helps teachers and learners draw out the math in four permanent exhibits.

New England Aquarium (not an ASTC member), Boston, Massachusetts
Penguins: An on-site and outreach program for 2nd-4th grades, focusing on data collection and analysis.

New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences, Camden, New Jersey
"How Much Food Would You Eat If...?": A facilitated floor program that centers on comparing the food consumption rates of sand tiger sharks and African penguins.

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), Portland, Oregon
Discovery Lab Discovery Box & Drawers (see "Finding the Math: A Math Momentum Sampler," ASTC Dimensions, January/February 2006)

Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota
MathPacks: A non-staff-facilitated, standards-aligned school program that includes tool-filled backpacks for use in museum galleries, online background information, and pre- and post-trip class activities.

Sciencenter, Ithaca, New York
"How Quick Are You?" An interactive exhibit where up to three visitors can test their reaction time by releasing a pushbutton when a light flashes at random wait times.

St. Louis Science Center, St. Louis, Missouri
Science Corner (see "Finding the Math: A Math Momentum Sampler," ASTC Dimensions, January/February 2006)

DeAnna Beane is director of Partnerships for Learning at ASTC, Washington, D.C.

NSF Logo

The Math Momentum in Science Centers project was supported by the National Science Foundation (Grant #ESI-0229782). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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