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NSF-funded project aims to boost college math readiness

Sept. 28, 2010

KALAMAZOO--A renowned Western Michigan University mathematics educator has been awarded a three-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a mathematics course for high school seniors that will prepare them for college-level courses in majors that do not require calculus.

Photo of Dr. Christian Hirsch.Dr. Christian Hirsch, who is nationally known for his work in leading the successful Core-Plus Mathematics Project at WMU, will lead a new effort called Transitions to College Mathematics and Statistics. The goal is to design, develop, field-test, refine and bring to publication a fourth-year mathematics course that can be used in high schools around the nation, regardless of the type of curriculum used for the first three years.

Hirsch and his team will develop an eight-unit course for seniors that blends core mathematical skills from algebra and geometry that students need to succeed on college placement tests with a wide range of high-interest topics that cover the ways mathematics is used in a variety of professions. Those topics range from the coding and encryption technology that is part of Internet use to the mathematics that governs democratic decision-making--polling, redistricting and apportionment--and mathematics used in financial markets.

"We are working to make this course interesting as well as useful to students," Hirsch says.

The course being developed, he notes, will fill needs triggered by two recent trends: the growing number of students placed in remedial mathematics courses when they enter college and more rigorous standards adopted by states nationwide that call for every student to complete four years of mathematics before graduating.

Hirsch says for students not planning to enter fields that require college calculus, there have been few or no alternative courses for seniors who do not opt to take a precalculus course during their final year of high school.

"The problem is universal for students who are not going into mathematics, engineering or the physical sciences in college," Hirsch says. "If they don't take mathematics during their final year, they are removed from the ideas, thought processes and skills of the subject and they don't do well when they take the placement tests that determine their freshman-year courses."

The data, he says, clearly show that students who are not enrolled in mathematics courses during their senior year are much more likely to be placed in remedial, non-credit courses when they enter college. And, he notes, college-bound students are overwhelmingly headed to majors that do not require calculus. In 2009, for instance, a College Board survey revealed that a full third of college-bound students planned to enter the health professions or business management, marketing and related fields.

Hirsch also notes that, to date, 36 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the new Common Core State Standards for Mathematics developed under the auspices of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Those standards call for all students to complete four years of high school mathematics.

Since 1992, Hirsch has led development of the Core-Plus Mathematics Project. That NSF-funded effort, has just been published in its second edition and has been named an exemplary curriculum by the U.S. Department of Education. Most recently, the CPMP curriculum was recognized by the research arm of the Business-Higher Education Forum as one of 35 education-related programs that increase student achievement and improve college readiness. The program is in use in nearly 900 school districts around the nation.

CPMP is a four-year curriculum that features interwoven strands of algebra and functions, statistics and probability, geometry and trigonometry, and discrete mathematics. The first three courses in the NSF-funded series provide a common core of broadly useful mathematics for all students. The fourth-year course, Preparation for Calculus, continues the preparation of students intending to study mathematics, engineering or the physical sciences in college.

The new fourth-year course will be designed for use both with CPMP and with other mathematic curricula. The project plans call for development of both a print and digital version of the new course as well as software tools that can be used by teachers and students.

"The new course can be used as a capstone course with many different high school mathematics programs," Hirsch says. "We plan to make the software freely available to students, teachers and teacher educators across the country to help meet the equity and access challenges that have delayed significant incorporation of such technology tools in high school mathematics."

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Media contact: Cheryl Roland, (269) 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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