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Teachers learning real-world apps for math, science

What math or science teacher hasn’t heard a student ask, “Where in the world am I ever going to use this stuff you are teaching me?”

Now a number of teachers in the state can answer, “Working for industries in Mississippi like Nissan, Northrop Grumman, the Red Hills Mine and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).” As part of a $3.19 million grant funded by the National Science Foundation and administered by Mississippi State University (MSU), teachers from grades 5-12 are participating this summer in a program called Industry-Education Partnerships.

“Our feeling is it is critical that teachers see how important science and mathematics are, and how important they are at all levels of employment — how much science and technology we see everywhere,” said Dr. Sandra Harpole, a professor of physics who is interim associate vice president for research and graduate studies at MSU. “The teachers get to participate in hands-on activities. And then they develop lesson plans that will incorporate into what they are already teaching some real world applications, which makes it more meaningful and interesting to students.”

Making the connection

Harpole said it is very helpful for teachers to see first-hand applied math and science at workplaces in Mississippi. It helps teachers make their lessons more pertinent to real life job opportunities.

“The teachers are experiencing things they would never have gotten to see,” Harpole said. “These companies are absolutely wonderful, and have been such outstanding partners for us.”

To prepare youths for the high tech jobs of today, math and science skills are critical. And students need to be exposed to learning basic math and science skills early. Harpole said early math and science training not only prepares students for more high level courses in high school and then college. It also sets an attitude.

“I think it is so critical that students do see math and science as important, something that is very relevant and interesting to them,” Harpole said. “Students need to learn math and science early, and to do that they need to have teachers who have skills to teach math and science at that level. If we wait until students are in the 11th or 12th grade, then we have left a lot of children out. We lose a lot of children in science at the middle school grades because they either decide they don’t like it, or they don’t get as much help as they need. There are skills you have to learn in those early grades that are so important.”

Harpole sees the Industry-Education Partnerships program as a template for developing a model for industry-education partnerships. The program provides a good basic platform in order to launch other cooperative projects with industry.
Project SMART (Science and Math Advancement and Reform utilizing Technology) received $197,600 in funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission and another $21,500 from Mississippi Lignite Company for a program involving eight teams of three teachers each participating in intensive technology training during a two-week workshop on the MSU campus and at the Ackerman-based mine that supplies lignite coal to the adjacent Red Hills Power Plant.

“The teachers must understand before they can be truly effective in passing that information on to students,” said Mike Thomas, manager of land, government and public affairs for Mississippi Lignite. “Exposing and involving them in on-site research and exploration of industrial processes is an ideal way to accomplish this. Related equipment, technical support and follow-up will be provided to participants to ensure their success in the classroom.”

Teachers involved in programs like Project SMART and Industry-Education Partnerships love learning about what really goes on in industry.

“We see this as a different type of professional development,” Harpole said. “The teachers are really experiencing the business and industry world. I can’t speak highly enough of Northrop Grumman, Red Hills Mine, Nissan, TVA and the other companies who have been willing to partner with us on the local level. They are showing a tremendous commitment to education. The employees with whom we have worked have such pride in what they do, and they really enjoy teaching teachers about industry.”

Finding the teachers

Dr. Rex Gandy, dean of the College of Science and Technology at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), said there is a shortage in Mississippi and nationally for math and science teachers in high school.

“Many of our teachers are teaching subjects that they didn’t major in,” Gandy said. “That is a problem especially in the math and science areas. Nationally there is a big demand for math and science teachers. A lot of our top trained math and science teachers go to other states.”

However, he is encouraged that in the past couple of years the Mississippi Legislature has increased spending for education. It is hoped the higher teacher salaries will help retain more math and science teachers in Mississippi.

It isn’t easy to answer the question about whether Mississippi high school graduates are adequately prepared for college level courses leading to degrees in engineering, architecture, computer science and other sciencetechnology fields. Gandy said while the best students are well prepared, a significant number of students lag behind.

“One factor is just not taking enough math and science in high school,” Gandy said. “Certainly we could benefit from more students going into math and science areas earlier. I think math and science are viewed by some students as being the harder subjects and are therefore avoided. Of course, we don’t think that way. We think a lot of that is rumor and incorrect. We don’t think these subjects are any harder than any other subject.”

Because of the lack of adequate math and science skills, courses are taught at Southern Miss and other colleges in the state to prepare students for college level courses. That is expensive, and a better alternative would be students taking more math and science in high school

“Especially in the future with increasing demand for technological expertise, we really have to improve in this area and have people with a good basis in math and science,” Gandy said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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