Expert Viewpoint

How Our District is Building Fun Math Foundations Using Project-Based Learning

When I started as a K–8 STEM coach at Amesbury Public Schools, I noticed that the math and science lessons we were teaching in elementary school weren’t vertically integrated with what we were teaching in middle school. To achieve that integration and help our students build the skills they need for project-based learning, I set out to get teachers invested in a shared culture that gave them a sense of ownership.

For example, we began with the idea of using a game-based approach to instill a positive attitude towards math in young students. First, we discussed the “why”: We truly wanted students to conceptually understand something before getting into the symbols and procedures of math. I encouraged teachers to set their own goals tied to this vision and discuss how team effort could help us achieve it. One of our primary challenges was to overcome some students’ apprehension about math.

About 17% of Americans battle math anxiety. This anxiety can at times be passed from parents to kids. Many people say things such as, “I'm not a math person.” As early as the 1st grade, students start displaying negative attitudes towards math, and some may develop a lifelong dislike of the subject.

Ways to Make Math Instruction Fun

One way to combat this problem is to create an environment where students can develop a positive relationship with math while still young. Students with a growth mindset towards math display more confidence when learning and are motivated to go the extra mile to tackle complicated problems. Following are some ways our district makes math fun.

1. Playing Hands-on STEM Games

One game I introduced to engage a first-grade classroom is called “Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?” Students see clues that help them open up a lockbox where they find a puzzle similar to a sudoku. They solve the puzzle to figure out who stole the cookies. To connect students personally to the math, suspects include our superintendent and JiJi, the penguin mascot for ST Math, which we use throughout the district. (Spoiler alert: It turns out that our superintendent was the one who stole the cookies from the cookie jar!)

We also do a zip line relay, where students answer some math questions, and for each correct answer, they get supplies to build a zipline. The goal is to get a stuffed JiJi down the line safely. So the students are moving around the room, they’re making connections, and also doing some STEM challenges.

2. Puzzle Talks

Another way we use ST Math is an activity we call Puzzle Talks, which incorporates teamwork in solving math problems. Students get the opportunity to brainstorm solutions to complex problems and explain their thinking. For example, if they’re learning about subtraction the teacher can put a puzzle up on the screen that relates to subtraction.

Then students do a “notice and wonder.” What do we notice about the puzzle? What do we wonder? Teachers ask these questions, then connect the puzzle back to the concept. Students are given instant feedback through an animation if their thinking was correct. This helps guide deeper conversation into their problem-solving technique.

3. Making Connections to the Real World

When it comes to piquing the interest of young minds, using examples from the world around them is a powerful way to help students understand the application of math concepts in everyday life. One day we had construction going on next door because there's a new school being built. So, we had Construction Day where we challenged students to learn about structure and function, which is a crossing-cutting concept in science. We challenged them to build a house that could fit JiJi inside and could also withstand a tornado. Some of them used a hair dryer, some used a leaf blower to try to blow down their houses — and they were all excited about it. To strengthen that real-world connection, we had the construction workers come in to talk about what they were doing next door.

We also held an Aviation Day where students participated in flying drones and mapping out a trip in a plane. This year, we will have a real hot-air balloon for students to see. All this happens while still integrating math standards.

As I look towards next year, my goal is to expand this sort of project-based learning to integrate math, science, and ELA in the best way we can. To empower our students to do more project-based learning and more problem-solving, we’ll always need to focus on building a solid foundation of math and science.

About the Author

Jennifer Donais is a K-8 STEM coach at Amesbury Public Schools in Massachusetts; she has worked as an educator for 13 years. She received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) in 2016 and was the national third-place winner for the Air Force Association STEM Teacher of the Year in 2021. She can be reached at [email protected].