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Finding a Better Way to Teach Grade School Students About Math

January 27, 2015

By Michele McDonald

Padmanabhan “Padhu” Seshaiyer will help K-12 teachers teach the reasoning behind math problems.

Padmanabhan “Padhu” Seshaiyer will help K-12 teachers teach the reasoning behind math problems. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

When Padmanabhan “Padhu” Seshaiyer was a grade school student in India, he wanted to know the “why” behind math and science problems but instead had to stick with the traditional formula-based approach. He knew there had to be a better way.

He’s now a George Mason University math professor and is leading a $1.3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to help K–12 teachers teach the reasoning behind math problems. The result could keep children interested in science and math through the challenging middle school years into college and throughout their lives, says Seshaiyer, who is the director of George Mason’s award-winning STEM Accelerator.

“When college students ask ‘Why should I care about math?’ it’s almost too late to answer that question,” Seshaiyer says. “Those questions need to be answered in grade school.”

The NSF grant is a “STEM-C targeted partnership” that will fund the three-year IMMERSION project in Virginia with Mason, in Montana with Montana State University and in California with Harvey Mudd College. Mason will work with 24 teachers from Fairfax County starting this summer. A total of 72 teachers from all three states will participate in the project each year.

College of Education and Human Development professor Jennifer Suh specializes in mathematics teacher development and improving mathematics proficiency in students, and is working with Seshaiyer, who’s based in the College of Science, on the NSF grant. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

College of Education and Human Development professor Jennifer Suh specializes in mathematics teacher development and improving mathematics proficiency in students, and is working with Seshaiyer, who’s based in the College of Science, on the NSF grant. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

The Mason-led program also brings together Mason professors from different disciplines. College of Education and Human Development professor Jennifer Suh specializes in mathematics teacher development and improving mathematics proficiency in students, and is working with Seshaiyer, who’s based in the College of Science, on the NSF grant. They’re also co-writing a book focused on teaching mathematical modeling in the elementary and middle grades.

IMMERSION will bring a concept called mathematical modeling into grade school classrooms. Mathematical modeling takes math out of the classroom and into the world, Suh explains. A thumb could be used as a unit of measurement or mathematical equations could be teased out of building a catapult.

“The idea is to inspire creativity so students can see math all around them and make connections,” Suh says.

And mathematical modeling is not watered down for the elementary set. “While it’s fun, it’s also complex enough to be challenging,” Seshaiyer says.

Teachers will have first-hand knowledge of how well the mathematical modeling approach works because they’ll be doing the work as students so they can learn what may stump a student or what may lead to that “a-ha” moment of understanding.

The teachers then will take the lesson and apply it to their classrooms. Suh and Seshaiyer will follow test scores and use the data for future research papers. The results could be seen in the upcoming generations of college students.

“I think teachers are the best group to spread the awareness of this approach,” Seshaiyer says. “It’s a chain reaction.”