Dream-catcher serves key role in 8th grade algebra study

In an education system crowded with academic specialists, curriculum managers and instructional theorists - Robyn Fisher's role might be overlooked or even unappreciated in some settings and yet, it could be argued, it is as fundamental to student success as any other.

Her job is to get children to dream.

A consultant on a $5 million federal study using project-based learning as a centerpiece for teaching algebra to at-risk eighth graders, Fisher's team is saddled with the task of illustrating for students the real-world path one would take from the middle school classroom to a career based in science and technology.

Every child has some expectation about what they want to do and they get messages about those expectations from many different places," Fisher said. "And if they are seeing or hearing messages about where they can and cannot go next or what they can or cannot do next, that can have an impact in the classroom.

"So what we are trying to do is connect the project-based learning they are doing in the classroom; with what's going on in the surrounding community and how the curriculum is being used," she explained. "Our job is to make the units come alive."

The project, titled STEM Learning Opportunities Providing Equity or SLOPE, is one of 49 study projects awarded funding in 2009 under the U.S. Department of Education's Investing in Innovation program.

Led by ConnectEd and California Education Round Table, the SLOPE study is touching more than 4,000 students in 30 schools and 17 districts.

Nearly 60 teachers are engaged in both the control and treatment classes. Each had to complete a three-unit course prior to the fall term and continue to receive ongoing coaching from collaborating educators of at least one hour per week.

Some of the incoming eighth graders took part in a five-week summer academy to prepare them for the upcoming challenge.

Instruction is focused around the project-based curriculum - that is, use of real-world elements to better illustrate problem-solving. Construction of puzzle cubes, for instance, is included in a unit on single-variable linear equations. An exercise using air traffic control as a backdrop helps explain linear equations and playing a virtual catapult game informs about quadratic equations.

There is growing research that students tend to retain knowledge better when communicated through project-based learning - especially when applied to lower-achieving students.

But because algebra serves as a gatekeeper course, one of the program's key goals is to improve the number of students who go on to college after being exposed to the specialized curriculum. The challenge, however, is that many of the districts enrolled in the SLOPE project are located in low-income neighborhoods and serve families where expectations for high education are not typical.

To solve this dilemma, the program sponsors turned for help to Fisher, who developed and managed programs at San Jose State designed to increase the college-going culture in local high schools.

Sharon Twitty, director of the SLOPE project, said that instead of simply adding a separate college awareness piece to the existing algebra program, Fisher created a vehicle for integrating the message into the instruction.

"This was really thinking outside the box," Twitty explained. "We know that human beings are motivated to learn by what they care about or have an interest in. This college awareness is tied directly to a core class. It's not an add-on, it's not an extra."

To help ignite student imaginations, Fisher constructed a series of regional analyses that provide concrete examples of how science and technology are being applied in the local economy. She visited some of the work sites and interviewed people whose jobs revolve around math, video-taping the sessions for teachers to later use as part of the class-day.

She said teachers are encouraged to remind the students of the links between where they are today and where they might like to go.

"Beyond middle school there's high school and beyond high school there's college and beyond college there's a world of careers that relate back to what a student is doing in middle school," she said. "So we want to make sure that this message was weaved throughout the math component of the project."

As part of the instruction, students are given details about college that they might not otherwise receive. The curriculum includes simple facts, such as the location of two-year and four-year universities in the surrounding area, entrance requirements and financial aid options.

Fisher said one of the program's role models is a young woman who struggled with math in high school and didn't see its importance given her desire to become a dancer. After attending community college and getting help from an attentive instructor, she went on not only to pass algebra but to get a master's degree in technology and today is engaged in developing video games with a dancing theme.

While the project's scope is limited, the hope is that the message of college expectation will take root in participating districts and pass to others as time goes on.

"Once teachers really believe, that this is an imperative as part of the math class - for students to visualize their dreams and understand how the dreams can be realized by a pathway to college and a career - we think this part of the program will be sustainable," she said.

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