PSU professors win $1M grant to connect math teaching to real-world issues

Teacher writing on whiteboard and two students in foreground

"When will I ever use this in real life?" 

It's an age-old question that math teachers have had to face at one point or another. A new three-year project out of Portland State University and Ohio University will help address that question as researchers focus on making elementary mathematics more meaningful, relevant and applicable inside and outside of the classroom by connecting math to real-world social and political issues.

PSU's Eva Thanheiser, professor of mathematics education in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Amanda Sugimoto, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education, will lead the research work funded by the National Science Foundation. Of the $1.9 million grant, PSU is expected to receive $940,534 to support the work. 

"We are thrilled to be able to do this important work with our local public schools in the Portland area and collaborate with schools in Ohio," Thanheiser and Sugimoto said in a statement. "The opportunity to actually teach elementary mathematics through social and political tasks and collaborate with local teachers is exciting."

They say there has been a lack of research on effective design and teaching practices for creating and implementing tasks of this nature, especially at the elementary level. The project aims to develop a set of lessons with supporting materials such as vignettes, videos, examples of student work, and teacher notes, and to study effective design and teaching practices that go into creating and implementing these tasks.

The resulting materials will be made widely and freely available for any teacher who is looking to connect their mathematics instruction to real-world social and political issues.

In the first year, the researchers will be recruiting and working closely with a team of school teachers from local public schools to develop, design and pilot lessons and tasks. Those will then be implemented more fully in the second year when Sugimoto and Courtney Koestler, director of the OHIO Center of Equity in Mathematics and Science, teach in elementary classrooms. In the third year, the team will continue to create rich examples of their work to share more broadly.

"Such collaboration is essential to allow us to bring together knowledge about children, teachers, schools, mathematics, and the world," Thanheiser and Sugimoto said. "Ultimately, our goal is to find ways to support children in developing richer understandings of mathematics and the world while also developing and sharing tangible ways that teachers could do the same in their classrooms."

The other collaborator is Matthew Felton-Koestler, associate professor of teacher education at Ohio.

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