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SPIE Professional January 2011

Digital Mathematics

Teachers and students get hands-on training to inspire next generation of scientists and engineers

By Beth Kelley

In today’s networked, integrated world, innovative ideas and breakthrough projects are frequently created through a combination of different technologies and topics of research and collaboration among a variety of businesses. That’s why SPIE and its members emphasize and advance an interdisciplinary approach to the science and application of light.

Some education systems, however, have seemed to miss the boat on this concept by continuing to teach subjects in a compartmentalized way, teaching math as if it were an isolated concept and not connected to everyday applications. This is not good, since numerous studies have demonstrated that students learn more with dynamic representations and hands-on, real-life projects than with traditional approaches.

Teaching math skills early is crucial for an innovative society; studies have also shown that success in middle school mathematics is key to students’ later educational success, high school graduation, and pursuit of careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. And math, of course, is fundamental in optics and photonics for designing lenses, measuring optical components, angles, and aberrations, and understanding the laws of reflection and refraction.

Some technology companies are reaching out past their traditional business and research partners and are taking an active role in educating the next generation of engineers and optical scientists, either by volunteering at schools, or by helping develop effective curriculum for math and science teachers.

Soccer and math

One example is the SunBay Digital Math program, developed by SRI International in collaboration with University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) and the Pinellas County School District in Florida where it was implemented as a pilot program in 2009.

photo of students with digital math materials
Florida 7th graders use computer software in the SunBay program.
Photo courtesy USFSP

Geared towards middle school students, the SunBay program uses technology and other tools, not just the traditional lecture-and-notes system, to help students learn advanced math.

For example, classes of 7th-grade students in Pinellas County have completed a “Managing the Soccer Team” project using real-world scenarios. They learned about rates and proportionality by figuring out how to move a typical soccer team from one city to another during the season using the least amount of time and fuel.

The curriculum also includes having the students graph the players’ improvements during practice sessions and calculate such things as a player’s rate of speed in a dash, ticket revenue for home games, and equipment costs.

That project employed SimCalc MathWorlds™ software, designed by the late James Kaput, a pioneer in improving math education.

While many students don’t take advanced math until their last years in high school, the SunBay algebra and advanced math materials are designed for students in middle school or early high school.

University partnership

SRI had already run a pilot project in Texas, beginning in 2003, and found it to be very successful at engaging kids and teaching higher math. “After the Texas effectiveness study, the next step in our program was to roll it out at the district level,” says Phil Vahey, senior scientist at SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning (CTL).

photo of teachers with materials
George Roy, Phil Vahey, and Nicole Collier of USFSP work on the SunBay training program for teachers
Photo courtesy USFSP

The program moved to Florida where Vivian Fueyo, dean of the College of Education at USFSP, and George Roy, assistant professor of math education, became the leads to implement the SunBay pilot program in Pinellas County. Fueyo and Roy are also co-principal investigators on a research project studying the effectiveness of the program.

Roy, a former middle-school teacher who is National Board-certified in middle school mathematics, was a good fit for the new program. “I had the practical background that was vital in implementation of the program,” he says. Roy and fellow professor Andy Reeves worked with SRI to adapt the digital mathematics materials that were used in Texas to align with Florida’s Next Generation Sunshine State Standards.

Teachers need training, too

The Helios Foundation, Pinellas County Schools, and the Pinellas Education Foundation funded the pilot program, and the USFSP team recruited teachers to participate in the project. The university partners were also responsible for teacher professional development, engaging teachers in co-design of digital math units, and supporting teachers in their use of the technology-based materials.

Teachers participated in workshops over the summer to learn about the curriculum and software and to implement the SunBay program during the 2009-2010 school year.

“The goal was to teach teachers how to teach math better using the technology and using the mathematics, providing a layered approach,” Fueyo says. This approach was fairly unique since teachers are often introduced to a new curriculum with little to no training, and the teacher must often learn alongside the student on how best to use it. With the SunBay program, teachers were confident in presenting the curriculum to the students because they had been provided with hands-on training and ideas on how to integrate the technologies into the lessons.

As part of the study of effectiveness of the program on student learning, the USFSP team also developed a teacher observation protocol to measure the teachers’ knowledge of the technological and pedagogical content and see how the teachers were implementing the technology in their math curriculum.

While some teachers stuck strictly to the laid-out lesson plans and others integrated their own ideas into the course structure, both strategies were found to be effective in teaching students the materials.

The preliminary research data collected at the end of the school year found that Pinellas students had statistically identical learning gains to the students who used SunBay materials in Texas. In both Florida and Texas, there were consistent gains across student demographics, including ethnicity and prior math achievement.

“We also found learning gains using a unit on geometric similarity,” Vahey says. The data from units using the SimCalc and Geometer’s Sketchpad software indicate that the SunBay Digital Math approach “can be used across multiple math topics to increase middle school students’ procedural knowledge and conceptual knowledge,” he said.

USFSP’s participation in the project also contributed to creating an improved professional development and learning community for the teachers throughout Pinellas County, not just for teachers involved in the SunBay program.


Sustainable education practices

Even with the huge success of the pilot program, the Florida schools knew they needed to make this program more cost-efficient and not dependent on outside funding. USFSP College of Education was charged with creating an ongoing and sustainable program, and creating a strategic plan for using the technology and teaching best practices for mathematics.

While the USFSP team is continuing to make adjustments, Pinellas school district has agreed to continue teaching the curriculum. A new group of teachers was trained in mid-August, and the second round of the program began in September 2010.

The USFSP College of Education is also currently designing a certificate program in Middle Grades Digitally Enhanced Mathematics as part of the sustainability plan.

“We’re also looking for additional funding to expand the program in Pinellas County and other school districts,” Vahey says, and to customize the program to fit the needs of those school districts.

In fact, Fueyo adds, “based on the success of this SunBay project, we are currently developing a dissemination template, which we plan to share with interested districts in the next few years.”


How the SunBay program works

Finding the right partners and team players is key to building a collaborative program like SunBay.

“Technology alone is not a silver bullet,” says SRI’s Phil Vahey. “We have to integrate efforts with district capability and needs as well as with teacher professional development. SRI is uniquely situated, since we’ve been investigating the use of technology in science, technology, engineering, and math education for two decades.”

Universities with knowledgeable education faculty provide the critical bridge of research and practice to support the teachers in the schools and make the programs sustainable, says Vivian Fueyo, dean of the College of Education at USFSP.

An integrated approach that includes curriculum, technology, and teacher professional development is also important. To build a similar program, Fueyo recommends:

• Use evidence-based curricula

• Implement university-based teacher professional development

• Maintain a close coordination with the local school district

• Focus on sustainable change


SPIE grants for education outreach in optics

SPIE supports numerous education outreach programs in industry and academia through a competitive grant process. Awards are made twice a year.

The next deadline for submitting proposals for an SPIE education outreach grant is 31 January.

For more information and to access the new online application form, go to spie.org/outreach.


SPIE scholarships

SPIE will award more than $300,000 in scholarships this year to college students studying optics, photonics, imaging, and related subjects.

Apply online by 15 February at spie.org/scholarships. All students studying worldwide in an optics, photonics, imaging, or optoelectronics program or related discipline are eligible to apply.

All scholarship applications are judged on their own merit based on the experience and education level of the individual student. Women, minorities, and veterans are encouraged to apply.

High school (pre-university/secondary school) and 1st/2nd year college undergraduate, post-secondary students will be judged relative to other applicants with similar educational backgrounds.


Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.


Beth Kelley 
is a science and technology writer.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201101.12

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