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An MAA section at Pleasant Hill Middle School on June 16. (Photos courtesy ACOE)

CSUEB adds geometry to successful math academies

  • June 29, 2011

What does solving for “x” or completing a geometric proof have to do with college readiness? A lot, according to national research, so Cal State East Bay and its partners are making it a priority to improve math and science education in the East Bay.

Mathematics is a prerequisite for higher education, with all four-year universities, including the CSU and UC systems, requiring applicants to complete some advanced math in high school and take additional math courses to earn a college degree.

Students who have passed Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II in high school are not only better prepared for college-level math, they’re also more likely to get there in the first place — 80 percent of students who pass algebra in the 9th grade go on to college. A solid foundation in math means more options for majors, and are critical for jobs in the growing STEM industries (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Those are some of the messages that Cal State East Bay is sharing with nearly 1,000 students and families this summer with its fourth year of Mathematics Achievement Academies — along with the excitement of algebra and the joy of geometry.

Run by CSUEB with the Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE) and other regional partners, the summer academies help familiarize students with math concepts before they take the full course the following academic year. The 2011 summer program comprises 44 sections in 11 districts and four regional churches, with 26 teaching algebra and 18 introducing geometry.

2011 also marks the second year of funding for Mathematics Achievement Academies from Chevron Corp, which is sponsoring 24 total sections. Their three-year, $1.5 million grant in 2010 provided the basis for the three-year program starting with Algebra I, expanding into Geometry this year and Algebra II in 2012.

“Being able to advance students mathematics knowledge to ensure college readiness is a win for all of us,” said Janet Auer, Chevron’s Specialist for Global Partnerships and Programs. “We saw great results with last year’s algebra cohort and are excited to further student achievement in geometry this summer.” 

Students who will start algebra or geometry in the fall — mostly those going into 9th or 10th grades, respectively — learn several different approaches to the material in the academy program, explained MAA administrator Phil Gonsalves, a mathematics lecturer at CSUEB (also a CSUEB alumnus) and mathematics coordinator at ACOE.

Students who go through the Math Academies become stronger mathematical thinkers, Gonsalves said. “They know better how to study, they can ask better questions, they are more flexible thinkers,” he added. “They learn true problem solving.”

The “pre-teaching” approach also helps build students’ confidence, according to Julia Olkin, professor of mathematics and computer science at CSUEB. “When they see the material again in the school year, there’s an a-ha moment,” she said.

The Mathematics Achievement Academies run for four weeks this summer throughout the East Bay region. Some began in early June, others will start sessions in July and run into August. Students meet three hours a day for 20 days, with an instructor trained in effective math education by program partner ACCLAIM (Alameda County Collaborative for Learning and Instruction in Mathematics).

A typical classroom morning begins with a warm up exercise and collaborative “debrief,” reviewing previous materials or refreshing other prerequisite skills. For the day’s subject, the instructor will demonstrate several different approaches to help students understand the mathematical concepts they are learning. “They can pick the way that works best for them,” said Gonsalves.

Reinforcing the lesson, the students move on to hands-on activities. In geometry, which deals with sizes and properties of shapes, students might spend time creasing small, thin pieces of paper into origami-like designs, then studying the lines and angles created by the folds.

This type of class activity is not focused on rote memorization, Gonsalves noted, and doesn’t rely on repetitive worksheets or problem sets. Instead they emphasize what is called “embedded practice” of mathematical concepts, both individually and in groups. Students are guided by the instructor and their in-class college mentors, many of whom are current CSUEB students.

Chevron employees are also volunteering as classroom mentors for their sections, said Auer. “Volunteerism has always been a core value of Chevron’s, and the commitment of our employees helps us create even more impact for our community,” she added.

To track their progress, students take the same test at the beginning and end of the academy session. Drew Kravin, a mathematics coordinator at ACOE and one of the MAA administrators, said that students in the 2010 Chevron academies showed 40 percent improvement from pre to post tests, and scores from other sections were comparable.

With assistance from Associate Professor Eric Suess in CSUEB’s Department of Statistics and Biostatistics, the MAA program also tracks students longitudinally. Kravin said they have seen a higher percentage passing algebra the year after the summer session — in Dublin Unified School District, 73 percent of MAA students received an A, B or C grade, compared to only 61 percent of the overall student population.

Although the academy sessions only run during the summer, the MAA program provides student support throughout the academic year, sponsoring family events and afterschool “study jams” with the college mentors providing guidance and tutoring.

In summer 2012, the program will add sections in Algebra II to introduce pre-calculus concepts. Gonsalves said they intend to keep the same basic principles, with a hands-on emphasis and minimal reliance on calculators, focusing on the ways algebra and geometry build into more complex mathematics. Students who complete the three-year sequence will be prepared to pass the CSU’s Entry-Level Math exam, required for all incoming students, which will help CSUEB reduce the need for remedial math courses at the college level.

The MAA team is also preparing to implement another expansion grant, from the Lesher Foundation, which will include additional teacher training and technology support for students in Contra Costa County schools. [See article]

Olkin is working on the teacher training preparation with Phil Duren, a professor of mathematics education in CSUEB’s Department of Teacher Education. “Students get the great summer program,” she said. “With Lesher’s support, they’ll also go back to teachers in their classrooms who have been trained to use techniques that encourage good mathematical thinking.”

Between the two expansions, CSUEB expects to have more than 65 total academy sessions next year, Olkin said.

Expanding the reach of the MAA program and improving mathematics education is about increasing opportunities, said Gonsalves. “You’re not born with the ability to do math, and you’re not born not liking math either,” he said. “But we want to show STEM as a direction for everyone, something that is obtainable.”

The academies encourage students to continue taking math classes throughout high school and apply to four-year colleges — and to become college mentors themselves, continuing to strengthen the pipeline of well prepared students.

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