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Contextualizing Content
Last winter, we highlighted an Algebra 1 class conducting an experiment launching Beenie Babies from the third floor mezzanine of the Fowler Learning Center as they studied linear equations. The topic of that blog is similar to this one: how can we balance context and content in teaching mathematics to high school students?

I recently came across this article that provides excellent insights into this very question. Its author, Ian Quillen, highlights the thinking of Mike Thayer who helped lead discussions at Philadelphia's EduCon 2.5 conference earlier this winter, "We need to do things to create the ability for them [students] to be truly mathematical thinkers."

Thayer's vision for math education is a scenario where high school students would take a composite course of Algebra 1, 2, Geometry and some Trigonometry concepts during their ninth grade year before then exploring additional mathematic concepts in a cross-disciplinary or independent fashion. He notes, "Chemistry teachers would be responsible for teaching students the basics of logarithms, while covering the pH scale. Biology teachers would explain the concepts of exponential growth to their students when discussing species population and reproduction." The end goal of such a math curriculum: to create a version of math that mirrors real life problems students will face through a diverse offering of courses and applications. 

The article, and thoughts shared in comments below the article, acknowledge that this type of revolution in math teaching presents many challenges; not the least of which is having teaching faculty that possess the varying skills and expertise necessary to embrace a more investigative, contextual approach to studying math. Other concerns circle back to the standards the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics have established; primarily that skills must be taught in conjunction with both models and real-world problems for them to make sense.

So could a math curriculum designed largely around independent exploration of real world problems serve students as well as current models of teaching math? At Proctor have already embraced this type of contextual learning and have found it provides students with not only a greater appreciation for the discipline, but an understanding of how the concepts they are studying are relevant beyond their math classroom.

Proctor's students receive foundational mathematics training in a contextual manner through their required coursework (Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry), and then have significant opportunities, as the article above encourages, to further explore mathematical concepts that intrigue them. Programs like Khan Academy may be able to teach content, but it is through interactive classrooms with intelligent, curious faculty that allow for true problem solving to be taught.

Advanced math electives in statistics, land surveying, architectural design, math design theory, finance, and engineering are complemented by advanced placement math courses in Calculus and Statistics to round out a math curriculum that spans well beyond lower Shirley Hall to nearly every department on campus as the sciences, social sciences, and arts all incorporate significant math concepts into some of their respective electives.

The notion of provide context within which content can be studied is not a new idea, but rather one that permeates every department on campus, and is core to how Proctor seeks to educate its students.
Understanding how mathematical formulas and concepts relate to the 'real world' is often a stumbling block for many students that struggle with math.
Proctor's approach to teaching math, however, mirrors that of many the article referenced in the main text of this post.
Understanding mathematical concepts is just the gateway to applying those concepts to 'real world problems', like predicting the path of a self-made rocket as it flies over a hundred yards in the air.
Providing a curriculum that not only teaches foundational concepts through Algebra 1, 2, and Geometry, Proctor offers a diverse set of advanced math electives targeting specific applications to the real world.
Whether you earn your required math credits through AP courses or through unique classes like surveying and math design theory, you will undoubtedly be challenged to think outside the box and to become a true problem solver!