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Teaching Math in a Science Class

Summer is a great time of year to reflect. As I walked among the Neapolis Archaeological Park in Siracusa, Sicily and learned about the great mathematician Archimedes, I began reflecting on how we teach math skills in our science classrooms. Some of you might be able to relate to the phrase, "This job can't be left behind." Jay's got stronger math skills than I do, and we started talking about how we could do it better, and who we should consult with to learn their strategies. We thought we would share our findings with you.

To begin, mathematics is an essential tool for everyone, especially for science students and teachers, and a vital component of every science course. In 1788 Nicolas Pike authored Arithmetic, the first American mathematics textbook for schools. It recommended that teachers utilize the following strategy when teaching mathematics:

  1. State a rule.

  2. Demonstrate the rule with an example.

  3. Have students practice the rule.

Pike’s method of mathematics instruction may be an effective way to teach students math skills, but it doesn’t provide students with context or practice applying their newly-acquired skills to the world.

In order to be successful in science courses and beyond, students need to practice solving problems that require them to evaluate the data they are provided, organize the relevant numbers in the proper sequence, and perform the necessary calculations. This provides them the confidence to know they can solve problems they have never encountered before. What should excellent teaching of mathematics in science classrooms look like? We surveyed a small group of very successful science teachers, a few outstanding math teachers, and the following is a summary of the steps they report using to teach math in their classrooms.

  1. Project a positive attitude about both mathematics as a tool to answer interesting questions and the ability of your students to perform mathematics.

  2. Pose interesting and challenging questions that relate to the real world.

  3. Model an example calculation as you discuss the connections between concepts and skills. Both concepts and skills are foundational to learning mathematics and complement each other. Even include some interesting history if it is relevant.

  4. Cultivate perseverance by providing students time to struggle and actively do mathematics. Embrace a classroom culture of struggling, making mistakes, learning from mistakes, and ultimately correcting them.

  5. Encourage curiosity and teamwork. Allow students to share their mathematical ideas and receive peer feedback while actively working in groups of 2 - 4 students. This reduces the likelihood that students will get caught in a procedural dead end.

  6. Provide encouraging teacher feedback and when necessary, help students rethink their solution pathway. Continually emphasize that learning math is a formative process. Delay giving students the answers until they have had time to struggle, incorporate feedback into their attempts, and have arrived at a reasonable answer.

  7. Review the answers.

We hope this relatively simple process is helpful to you and your students!

NOTE: Portions of this blog post are excerpted from one of our earlier posts titled, "A Vision for STEM Education"

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