Collaborative Outreach to “atrisk” Middle School Students

Through an ongoing collaboration among Mississippi State’s Swalm School of Chemical Engineering, the College of Education and Fifth Street Middle School in Westpoint, Mississippi, pre-service mathematics teachers and “at-risk” middle school students come together to focus on learning STEM concepts in an innovative way using LEGO robotics. A key feature of this project is the highly visual approach to teaching and studying STEM concepts. Karthi Vidhyalaya International School The current phase of the project is directed toward “at risk” middle school students—students whose performance on assessments indicates a strong likelihood of their failure or discontinuance from school. Pre-service teachers participate in completing lesson planning and execution coupled with service-learning by delivering the lessons to middle school students. The collaboration between the university and K-12 faculty members AND across disciplinary boundaries (i.e. engineering and education) provides a unique opportunity to bring innovative approaches to the K-12 classroom.

Project directors have identified several key outcomes. First, PSTs will engage in quality instruction and field experiences that positively impact their future practice. Second, PSTs and middle school students will learn important, integrated STEM concepts in a scaffolded, interconnected method that leads to a deeper understanding of mathematics and related curricula. Third, PSTs will engage in service learning—a practice that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.

Both quantitative and qualitative data will be collected for evaluation. First, PSTs’ lesson plans will be evaluated using the Collaborative Lesson Rubric developed for this project. PSTs’ Reflective Learning Logs will be collected and analyzed for themes that emerge about teaching mathematics using the Robotics, beliefs about teaching mathematics in an application based method, and pedagogical and development issues in teaching at-risk students. Third, middle school state test data will be examined for assessing the project’s impact on student learning.

PROJECT STATUS Fall 2008, the project investigators initiated a feasibility study through Dr. Franz’ EDS 4633 Methods of Teaching Mathematics course and Dr. Elmore’s informal contacts with Fifth Street Middle school. PSTs built and programmed robots, wrote lesson one plan, and collectively taught one lesson. Informal, preliminary data was collected and reviewed by the investigators. The education professor used noted areas of deficiencies in the PSTs lesson plans and interaction with the at-risk middle schools to rewrite the EDS 4633 course syllabus to more adequately meet the needs of the PSTs. A new cohort of mathematics education PSTs began the two semester professional education sequence in January 2009. PSTs spent the first 8 weeks of the semester studying adolescent development with implications for learning mathematics, at-risk students in mathematics, national and state standards for school mathematics, the pedagogy of questioning, writing and reading in the mathematics classroom and teaching algebra in middle school and high school. During the second half of the semester, PSTs will interact with the robotics, brainstorm mathematics content and cross-curricular concepts that are part of the 8th grade curriculum and can be demonstrated with robotics, and write lesson plans using an iterative process of critique and rewrite until a quality lesson plan is created. Finally, PSTs will observe and assist as the authors teach lessons to the middle school students. PRELIMINARY RESULTS Preliminary results are limited due to the infancy of this project. Results include grades on the PSTs lesson plans and interview data. PSTs were interviewed as a whole class at the conclusion of their methods course. Finally, middle school students’ level of participation was observed. PSTs prepared quality lessons for the project. However, the professor had to provide significant guidance, as PSTs had to delineate the important mathematics that could be learned, decide on cross-curricular materials, and prepare activities to compliment robotics activities. This was not an unexpected outcome as PSTs were just learning how to write quality lesson plans. While the PSTs responded favorably to the use of robotics in the classroom, they were overwhelmed by the middle school students’ lack of mathematical ability, lack of motivation, and unrealistic expectations for career choice. Therefore, the interview served to inform the professor on the types of knowledge the PSTs would need prior to entering the classroom in future semesters. The middle school students were engaged in the activities. However, this was our first visit to the school, so it would be difficult to claim that the robotics lesson itself was the reason for the high level of engagement. This was a novel experience for the students; therefore, participation needs to be assessed after several visits to the school. Testing data is not yet available.