Solving the Math/Science Riddle

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The way out of our most serious educational challenge may lie in a host of newdigital curriculum supplements.

Hardware & Software WHEN PLUTO LOST its planetary status recently, science teachers found themselves in a bit of a bind. Their textbooks were suddenly out of date, leaving them scrambling to explain a changing solar system without a sufficient reference.

Of course, outdated textbooks and inadequate resources are nothing new in the educational arena—nor a problem limited to science. Science and math teachers in particular, though, may be disinclined to wait for textbooks to catch up when information is readily available online. Fortunately, they have plenty of choices when searching for digital science and math curriculum supplements, as new technologies have inundated the market and entered classrooms across the country.

Making a Science Connection

Discovery Education, a division of Maryland-based Discovery Communications, is set to go live in early spring with Science Connection. Featuring a web-based interface used in tandem with Discovery’s Unitedstreaming database of digital video content, Science Connection acts as a multimedia toolbox stocked with interactive video, science simulations, and virtual labs designed for the middle school level, the stage at which students often plateau in knowledge and skill sets.

Science Connection’s annual subscription service (list price is $1,995) requires no setup fees, and no investment in hardware is needed. Already 70,000 schools nationwide use Unitedstreaming’s video-on-demand resources, which include lesson plans, speeches, and 50,000 clips.

Simone Parker first encountered Science Connection at a National Science Teachers Association conference last spring, when Discovery invited her to join the Science Connection Advisory Board. On a two-year term, she and 12 other science educators from across the country work with Discovery’s curriculum staff to test and evaluate its programs.

A science teacher at Trigg County High School (KY), Parker often juggles lesson plans spanning physics, geology, astronomy, and chemistry. With help from Unitedstreaming and Science Connection, she can easily create multimedia presentations. “I’m addicted to the virtual labs because I am able to show my students a complicated, time-consuming process without pulling out all of my lab equipment to do a demonstration,” she says.

The program’s assessment components help Parker plan units around her students’ comprehension and improve the efficiency of her lessons. “I don’t have to guess at what they don’t know,” she says. “Before we start a unit, like say, astronomy, I can test their basic understanding and highlight stuff like the moon. You’d be surprised at how many kids don’t know about the Big Bang.”

Just in Time

The launch of new science tools could not come at a better time. The mid-November release of “The Nation’s Report Card” by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which conducts periodic assessments across several subjects in grades 4, 8, and 12, detailed a mixed bag of results from the most recent science assessments administered in 2005.

Elementary schools are making the most progress. The average fourth-grade score was higher on the 2005 test than on all previous assessments. Meanwhile, eighth-grade science scores showed no significant change compared to results in 1996 and 2000. At grade 12, the average score actually fell from its 1996 level, and showed no significant change from 2000.

There’s still a ways to go when it comes to giving young learners thefoundation they need, and the desire to stay with math their whole lives.
—Francis "Skip" Fennell, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

Math performance was more encouraging. Math results for fourth-graders and eighth-graders improved steadily from 1990 to 2005. For both grades, the average score on the 2005 NAEP assessment was higher than on all previous tests. Grade 12 scores will be available later this year, but the results from the 2003 Program for International Student Assessment of 15-year-olds don’t bode well: US kids were outperformed in math literacy and problem solving by their peers in 29 industrialized countries.

“There’s still a ways to go when it comes to giving young learners the foundation that they need, and the desire to stay with math their whole lives,” says Francis “Skip” Fennell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The NCTM recently released its “Curriculum Focal Points,” an extension of the council’s 2000 publication,“Principles and Standards for School Mathematics,” which laidout a vision for developing a high-quality math curriculum.“Curriculum Focal Points” expands on that document by identifyingareas of emphasis at each grade level, pre-K throughgrade 8. Together, these two publications provide resources toguide mathematics curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

MathScore.com, from the Accurate Learning Systems Corporation of Palo Alto, CA, is aligned to the NCTM Focal Points. An online environment that allows students unlimited access to practice their math skills, the program randomly generates problems and adapts their difficulty based on student performance. MathScore gives teachers a unique view into student progress by tracking performance and displaying results in a spreadsheet highlighting each student’s starting and ending levels of mastery. “In one hour on Math- Score, an entire classroom can complete one month’s worth of customized, timed tests,” says Steven Yang, founder and CEO of MathScore. “The teacher doesn’t have to do any paperwork, saving about 15 hours of time away from teaching.”

Another new technology based on the existing NCTM standards is NorthStar Math from Harcourt Achieve. NorthStar Math provides 4 million math problems through a flexible online tool. The software helps educators create differentiated, standards-aligned practice problems, assess their students, and report findings for predictive analysis for grades 3 through 12.

Updated and New Favorites

Some existing math and science products are receiving performance updates to speed processing power for teachers and enhance the interface for students. Waterford Early Math and Science, a pre-K to secondgrade program from Pearson Digital Learning, is up to version 4.1, featuring a revamped sequencer engine that makes the software more individualized and responsive to student performance. The software also contains new labs and online experiments for teachers.

“We want to show kids that math gives science structure, and that science gives math real-life application,” says Heidi Anderson, product manager for Pearson Digital Learning.“Students need to see math concepts at work, and a scienceexperiment like measuring units of water lets them seethe real-world association. Then they will start asking questions,which is what the scientific method is all about.”

New from software maker Knowledge Adventure comes JumpStart World, a K-2 tool for the home which employs a 3-D learning environment that offers children games and missions to complete. Key features include the personalized monthly progress reports that track each child’s success, and parent-tip e-mails offering ideas for engaging children away from computers as well.

“We know that parents want to help, but they don’t want to be viewed as policemen,” says Leslie House, senior vice president of product development at Knowledge Adventure.“We want to create software that feels like they are helpingand making it enjoyable for [their kids].”

Beverly Ellman, a second-grade teacher at Coeur d’Alene Elementary in Los Angeles, says another Knowledge Adventure product, Math Blaster, has transformed her students’ math skills: “Their favorite program is ‘Mastering the Basics,’ which spans many levels. The use of the program has had a significant positive effect on their mathematical reasoning skills. They have learned to apply strategies and results from simpler problems to more-complex problems; they have figured out so many math ‘tricks.’ Last year, when we began using the different Knowledge Adventure math programs in our entire second grade, every single student scored proficient or above on the state math tests. That was a first.”

Andrew Matranga is a freelance writer based in Boulder, CO.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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