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Business leaders + math teachers = success, multiplied in Rockford classrooms, workplaces

September 20, 2012
Rena Cotsones

Rena Cotsones

by Rena Cotsones

What do Rockford-area math teachers have in common with members of the Carpenters Local 792 and employees of scientific equipment maker Thermo Fisher Scientific and aerospace company Woodward Inc.?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

This past summer, a group of 18 math teachers had the opportunity to see how the skills they are teaching students are being applied in the “real world” in the Rockford region, thanks to a professional development program administered by the NIU Department of Mathematical Sciences. Funded by the Illinois Mathematics and Science Partnership program, the program focused on excellence in math teaching, with a special emphasis on enhancing teacher leadership and student engagement.

NIU math professors Helen Khoury and Mary Shafer, principal investigators on the project, partnered with Alignment Rockford, local companies and Rockford Public Schools to provide the teachers with experiences that helped them gain a fresh perspective on how classroom learning translates to the business world.

At Thermo Fisher Scientific, Chris Budde, general manager, and Jeff Lee, director of operations, talked about how math and algebra skills are applied in all departments of the company.

At the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters Apprentice and Training Center, Jim Emerson of Carpenters Local 702 outlined how the skilled trades utilize math, geometry and algebra proficiencies.

At Woodward, Terry Voskuil, director of technology of turbine systems, and Joel Kleckler, principal engineer, demonstrated how mathematical principles go into the development of new engineering systems and processes.

Rockford math teachers collaborate at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Rockford math teachers collaborate at the Museum of Science and Industry.

“The teachers really enjoyed the experiences at the businesses and the related discussions,” Khoury said. “Teacher participants developed classroom activities for their middle school and high school mathematics students that connect to how mathematics is being implemented in industry.”

“I was very impressed by everything we saw,” added Jo-Ann Valdivia, Math Department chair at Jefferson High School. “I was especially intrigued when Nikki Jarrett at Thermo Fisher Scientific shared real-life applications for polynomials and the opportunity for hands-on investigation with pH. This topic was later discussed in another area of mathematics, logarithms, showing students connections between mathematical concepts. We are already creating lessons for these topics.”

The series of visits confirmed the value of the high school redesign currently underway in Rockford Public Schools, noted Laurie Preece, executive director of Alignment Rockford.

“This professional development was very timely because it focused on algebra applications in a wide variety of occupations,” she said. “Academies strive to present math curriculum in occupational contexts, so learning how chemists, engineers, tradesmen and tradeswomen, accountants, CNC operators and biological researchers all use math is very supportive of Rockford Public Schools’ high school redesign.”

NIU Mathematical Sciences faculty members Khoury, Shafer, Hamid Bellout, Richard Blecksmith and John Wolfskill also have helped develop and implement various additional activities with the teacher participants to focus on algebra, algebraic thinking, connecting algebra to other subjects, formative assessments and implementing the new Illinois Learning Standards in Mathematics Incorporating the Common Core.

Rockford math teachers collaborate at the Museum of Science and Industry.Teacher participants in this continuing grant program will join professors Khoury and Shafer this fall in Chicago for more professional development experiences at the regional conference held by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

“This conference provides another opportunity for teachers to grow professionally as mathematics teachers and as teacher leaders in their schools,” Shafer said.

Added Khoury, “Supporting middle and high school mathematics teachers, and their school administrators, to make mathematics meaningful, relevant and enjoyable in the classroom is a major goal of ours.”

During follow-up sessions in 2012 and 2013, mathematics teacher participants will continue to experience and learn how mathematics, and specifically geometry, gets implemented in the sciences, engineering, business and technology. In the process, teachers will enhance their own knowledge of mathematics and of mathematics teaching.

In addition to partners mentioned above, NIU has worked closely on this project with Econ-Illinois and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Rena Cotsones is assistant vice president, regional engagement/Rockford for Northern Illinois University.