NIU to improve math content knowledge for teachers from Rockford, Sauk Valley

Northern Illinois University has received a $1.6 million grant from the Illinois State Board of Education to provide professional development in math pedagogy to 160 teachers from Rockford and the Sauk Valley area.

Grant dollars also will fund the development of online resources for the statewide implementation of transitional math, which supports students’ transition from high school to college math.

The Northern Illinois STEM Ready (NISR) project will provide professional development to the PK-12 teachers beginning in April and concluding in September. The professional development will enhance teachers’ content knowledge and help them connect classroom math to “real-world, authentic” tasks.

Participants from the school districts will meet with local employers to determine what math knowledge and abilities are expected of the workforce. The goal is to provide teachers with strategies to promote students’ algebraic thinking and college- and career-readiness.

NISR also will provide an opportunity for research into best-practice teaching strategies.

Faculty and staff from the NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction, housed in the College of Education, from the NIU Department of Mathematical Sciences, housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, from the NIU Center for P-20 Engagement, housed in the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development, and from the Illinois Regional Office of Education (ROE) #47 are collaborating to develop and teach the two-week professional development training plus four full-day workshops. The NIU Department of Education Technology, Research and Assessment, also housed in the College of Education, will develop the online transitional math resources and complete the required evaluation.

Kristin Brynteson
Kristin Brynteson

“Our ultimate goal is to improve student learning,” said NISR Project Director Kristin Brynteson, who is also director of Professional Development at NIU’s Center for P-20 Engagement.

“We’ll model for the PK-12 teachers what we hope to see in their classrooms. They’ll experience this as students while also working together to find, modify and write learning tasks of their own that they can implement in their classrooms,” Brynteson added. “One of our hopes is that by helping the teachers develop a deeper understanding of this math content knowledge, and also of a shift in pedagogy, that they’ll see their students engage with content in a different way.”

College of Education Dean Laurie Elish-Piper sparked the cross-campus collaboration to develop, write and submit the Illinois Mathematics and Science Partnerships proposal when she noticed the opportunity advanced by the state board.

Sally Blake, chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, believes that the NISR project will help teachers see how conceptual trajectories and progressions develop across grade levels.

Sally Blake
Sally Blake

“Students do not start learning mathematics and science when they enter middle or high school,” said Blake, a co-principal investigator on the grant. “The conceptual understanding starts in the early years and builds through activities, experiences and application to real-world experiences.”

Mary Shafer, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics Education who also serves as a co-principal investigator, expects great results from the transitional math emphasis.

“In high school, some students only take three years of mathematics. When they go to a community college or a four-year university, there’s a larger gap for them because they had not studied math in their senior year,” Shafer said. “With NISR’s focus on conceptual understanding of mathematics topics and solving authentic tasks, our goal is that many of these students will make it into the first math course in a college or university academic program without the need for remediation.”

Anji Garza, director of professional learning for ROE #47, which serves Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties, and a partner on the grant, is already building a transitional math foundation for students in the Sauk Valley.

“She has been working with groups around the state to develop rich mathematical tasks that create a conceptual understanding for students. These are authentic tasks – in other words, the tasks that employers and employees use in business and industry,” Shafer said.

Mary Shafer
Mary Shafer

“Teachers often say to students that mathematics is used every day but, oftentimes, it’s very hard for us to come up with those applications,” Shafer added. “Anji goes to meet different employers, asks them about how mathematics is used in their business and asks about the specific mathematical things required for employees. Tasks then are built around things that employers are actually doing.”

Garza is a member of the grant’s leadership and planning teams. Her counterpart is Travis Woulfe, executive director of Improvement and Innovation at Rockford Public School District 205.

Both have contributed important voices to the conversation, Brynteson said. “We have school representatives on the various program teams because what we’re doing is driven by local needs.”

All 160 teachers will gather at NIU for the first time in April during a kick-off event that will give an overview of the curriculum and activities, along with helping them get to know each other. In May, they’ll continue to lay the groundwork for the summer sessions while also meeting and hearing from local employers.

During the summer training sessions, teachers will dig deeply into algebraic content, hear from regional employers, collaborate to develop classroom activities and learn to transform their classrooms.

“I’m really excited to dig into this,” Brynteson said. “I’m excited about working across the colleges and with our external partners and the schools. I’m also looking forward to working with the teachers and learning from them.”

Wei-Chen Hung
Wei-Chen Hung

The NIU Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment (ETRA) will lead the development of online professional development resources for teachers interested in implementing or continuing the transitional math curriculum. The website also will offer “micro-credentials” and badges for teachers who complete the training.

“Our goal is to work with content subject matter experts and convert their original content into online learning content for teachers across the state of Illinois and to expand to other states,” said Wei-Chen Hung, chair of the ETRA department.

“Every teacher has a different competency level when it comes to adopting transitional math,” he added. “The system we are going to develop will work for first-time teachers with a quick orientation – what is transitional math? – and by providing basic modules for them to get started.”

Seasoned teachers of transitional math, meanwhile, will find, according to Hung, “ways to expand their curriculum and to share those experiences with other teachers. We want to motivate teachers to use this website and to really come up with meaningful activities for their students.”

Because transitional math has a “storytelling” basis, “transitional math allows students to connect math to the real world. They’re not just learning the math from the textbook, but they are learning to solve real-world problems,” Hung said.

Todd Reeves
Todd Reeves

Meanwhile, Todd Reeves, an assistant professor in the ETRA department with research interests in instructional technology and teacher education and development, will assess the NISR grant work.

In his role as project evaluator, Reeves said he will employ “a quasi-experimental design to estimate the effect of the professional development program on teachers’ knowledge of algebra” and look at the quality of authentic learning tasks designed and used by the teachers.

Beyond contributing data for peer-reviewed NSIR presentations and publications, the evaluation will also inform the improvement of further project design and implementation.

“The NISR project has great potential to advance the quality of PK-12 STEM instruction in the northern Illinois region, and to support current state-level initiatives surrounding transitional mathematics and open educational resources,” Reeves said. “However, to me, the really exciting part of the project is that it brings together individuals and groups at NIU who have not yet had opportunities to work together in support of NIU’s mission.”

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