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Area summer program makes sense of math

Margaret Biggerstaff, coordinator for the West Central Achievement and Integration Collaboration, demonstrates ways to help students learn math differently during a summer program involving seven area school district. The first session was held in the New London-Spicer School District. The second session begins in August in Willmar. (CAROLYN LANGE | TRIBUNE)1 / 2
A ball with math questions is used during a game with students. (CAROLYN LANGE | TRIBUNE)2 / 2

NEW LONDON — When 32 middle school students and five teachers go to Valleyfair amusement park today, they won’t just be riding roller coasters.

They’ll be doing math.

With tape measures and stopwatches in hand, the students will record and graph information including how long rides last, how many people are going on which rides and the height requirements for different rides. With that data, the students will make predictions on such things as how popular certain rides are with different groups of people.

The exercise is a fun reward — and an opportunity to use math in real-life situations — for the students and teachers who were part of a two-week-long summer math program.

Called “gamma,” the program is part of the West Central Achievement and Integration Collaborative that includes seven area school districts: Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City, BOLD, Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg, MACCRAY, Montevideo, New London-Spicer and Willmar.

The first session of gamma was held at NLS and included students and teachers from the five districts. A second session, which will have about 100 students, will be held in August in Willmar.

The program is “an opportunity for students to learn about mathematics in ways that are different than what they’d typically see in the classroom,” said Margaret Biggerstaff, coordinator for the collaborative.

“Gamma is our shining star,” she said. “It’s something that will touch students.”

Using data from state-required test scores, Biggerstaff said students in the collaboratives districts were consistently scoring poorly in certain aspects of math, including understanding and applying square roots.

By using a variety of tools, games, toys and a bag full of mystery items, students get hands-on opportunities to discover how math works — and not just how to get the right answer.

“It’s just about seeing math from a different perspective and learning more about it,” said Biggerstaff, who has spent nearly 50 years in the education field analyzing data and teaching students and teaching teachers how to teach and learn differently.

One of the goals is to help students become more flexible in how they look at solving problems.

For example, students were given a bag that contained straws, wooden beads, Life Saver candies and a piece of paper and told to create a vehicle that could travel simply by blowing on it.

The students’ creations varied dramatically from one that looked like a sailboat to another that was essentially a paper-covered axle-rod rolling on Life Savers.

Some worked better than others.

“That’s part of what math learning is all about too,” Biggerstaff said. “Mistakes are just as important. In fact, research tells us that students actually learn more when they’re making mistakes than when they’re not making mistakes.”

An exercise of dropping a ball from waist-high and measuring and graphing the distance of the bounce was then used to help students predict how far the ball would bounce if dropped from a 7-foot height.

The activities are designed to help students think flexibly and “have a strategy” for solving problems, Biggerstaff said.

The goal is not to simply have a quick and correct answer to a math problem but to expose them to new concepts and have a deeper understanding of how numbers are put together rather than just a “surface learning” and “tricks” for memorizing math problems, she said. “It needs to make sense to them.”

Learning math isn’t just about improving a school district’s test scores. Biggerstaff said data show students who learn math skills rise higher in job promotions and earn more money, even if they are not in any kind of math or science career.

“The more math you take, the higher your total life income is,” she said. “The more rigorous math courses you take in high school, it impacts your income long-term.”

Besides the benefit to the students, who signed up for the voluntary program, gamma also provides an opportunity for teachers from different districts to spend two weeks together to share ideas to take back to their classrooms next fall.

Biggerstaff said the achievement gap between poor or minority students and other students is well-documented and efforts are being taken to close that gap.

But she said data also show a troubling new gap between rural and metro students.

She said rural Minnesota students are stagnating in their academic achievement growth and are falling behind students in metro districts.

Programs like gamma, she said, can help close that gap.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750