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Summer 2010

It Stems from Algebra: Professor Chris Dede and Assistant Professor Jon Star


What motivates students to become interested in working in science, technology, engineering, or math fields, referred to in the academic world as STEM careers? Although there have been numerous studies looking at student motivation, most have used just one type of activity to engage students. In their new research project, Professor Chris Dede and Assistant Professor Jon Star are using three technology-based activities, all rooted in algebra, once called the "new civil right" by one algebra advocate. The study, which started in January and will end in three years, is classroom-based and is expected to involve about 5,000 students in grades five to nine. For four days, the students will be presented with a real problem and will then learn how algebra concepts can ultimately help them solve the problem. In January, Dede and Star jointly answered questions about why a study like this is necessary, why framing it in algebra made the most sense, and how movies like Star Wars and E.T. may help.

Is there a reason to be concerned about student interest in STEM careers? Is the STEM pipeline in trouble?
Job prospects in the United States have changed both because of the shift to a global economy and because of a change in this country from an industrial economy to a knowledge and services economy. Many blue-collar and low-level white-collar jobs have disappeared. To have quality lifestyles, students need to graduate with more sophisticated skills than they did historically. Also, to compete globally, the United States needs to increase its STEM jobs to aid with knowledge production. For all these reasons, there is a crisis in how many students are interested in and competent in mathematics.

Why algebra?
Algebra is a "gatekeeper" subject; students who don't do well in this course or who don't take it have precluded their career options in a variety of jobs related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We want both to interest a wider variety of students in taking algebra and to help those students succeed through better ways of teaching algebra.

Why do students find algebra so difficult?
Some students struggle in algebra because they lack important prerequisite skills, including facility with and understanding of fractions and fluency with basic number operations. For others, algebra itself is inherently difficult, in that it is a significant leap in abstraction from the arithmetic that is taught in elementary school. For these and other reasons, too many students struggle in algebra.

You mentioned that success in algebra is widely recognized as critical to students' future success. In what way?
There have been a variety of studies that have linked success in algebra to future educational and career opportunities. For example, completing a course beyond Algebra II in high school more than doubles the odds that a student who enters college will complete a bachelor's degree. Another study found more than three-quarters of students who took Algebra I and Geometry went on to college within two years of high school graduation, while only one-third of students who did not take Algebra I and Geometry courses did so.

Your study starts with a one-day "induction" activity. Students will either watch a traditional video, become a STEM professional in an online, multiuser video environment, or watch as a teacher describes the problem. Why three different formats?
We are contrasting different types of motivation to see which is effective with various types of students. That is, we don't expect to find one approach universally better than the others, but rather a complex pattern of effectiveness that may vary by age, by gender, by ethnicity, and by academic achievement.

The problem students will solve involves space exploration. Was this to hook them in?
Space science is a field that interests students of many ages. Both boys and girls find space exploration interesting, and the entertainment industry has provided many engaging backstories, such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and E.T. Many issues in space science are related to the types of mathematics that underlie algebra.

What kind of space-related problem will they be solving?
It is more accurate to imagine that students in a particular grade will solve multiple problems that emerge from a single situation. For example, interplanetary explorers may encounter trouble on their spaceship; math, and algebra in particular, will enable students to investigate the explorers' troubles and help generate solutions.

Is algebra really a "new civil right"?
This strong statement is attributed to civil rights activist Bob Moses. Moses founded the Algebra Project, a widely influential mathematics literacy intervention focusing on low-income students and students of color. With this statement, Moses was stressing the critical importance of success in algebra to students' ability to fully participate in today's society.

Photo: Mark Morelli