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Making Math Relevant

Connecting math to real-world jobs shows students its importance.
By Joseph Goins

“I'm never going to use this in real life!” This is a response that teachers, particularly math teachers, hear almost every day. To the students making this remark, math is just a bunch of computations on a screen or board that they're forced to wrangle with for no good reason.

As educators, we know that's not the case. Even manufacturing jobs now require strong skills in mathematical concepts such as fractions, decimals, and basic trigonometry. So how can we help students see the meaning in math? Hundreds of software programs have been developed to guide learners through mathematical complexities but how do educators convince those learners that the effort is worthwhile? The answer: Bring relevance and context to the subject.

Career and technical education (CTE) provides a prime example of how to help students make the connection between math and real life. Applying classroom learning while working with the technology required for a chosen career path has proven to be so engaging that the Association for Career and Technical Education reports that among the advantages CTE students exhibit are gains in motivation, engagement, grades, and math skills.

The National Research Center for Career and Technical Education took math skill advancement a step further by developing a Math-in-CTE model in which lessons emphasized the mathematics already existing within the occupational curricula. After just one year, students in the math-enhanced CTE classes performed better on standardized and community college placement math tests than students who received the regular CTE curriculum. Those results are especially impressive since regular CTE students were already reporting greater general math proficiency than students not involved in CTE.

To help teachers bring this concept into their own lessons, my company launched a career-based math solution, WIN Math, which contains math and project tools formed around 16 different career clusters.

Within the framework of linking real-world projects to math, teachers can include not just obvious choices such as STEM professions, but also law and public safety, corrections or security, hospitality and tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, and natural resources. Lesson units can conclude with individual or collaborative projects based on authentic workplace tasks such as the following:

  • Creating a “green” blueprint (uses algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus/calculus, probability and statistics, linear programming)
  • Producing a marketing plan or performance chart (uses algebra, calculus, mathematical economics, statistics)
  • Developing a disease prevention/response program (uses pre-algebra, algebra, statistics, dimensional analysis)
  • Arguing a legal case centered on a math-based problem, such as time and distance in a murder trial (uses algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus, finite mathematics, statistics)

The added advantage of the career-based approach is that it gives students a taste of what a particular profession entails. For that reason, the career paths chosen as lesson frameworks can be aspirational as well as practical.

The U.S. education system is facing increasing demands that students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers. To accomplish this, students need to understand why math matters. To do that, educators need to form a math curriculum around business and industry skills to help them connect what they’re learning to the real world.

Joseph Goins is executive vice president of WIN Learning, a software firm focused on career and college readiness initiatives. Goins is a doctoral candidate in education policy and administration at Vanderbilt University.

Image: Getty Images

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.