In the fall of 2016, the Algebra Project began leading two National Science Foundation (NSF) awards and collaborating as a subcontractor on two more — all for research that will benefit students who are not being reached by current educational practice. Students who fall into the bottom quartile on state tests in middle school, for example, are unlikely to acquire the mathematics literacy needed for informed citizenship, or for obtaining a family supporting job in the 21st century economy.
The NSF new program called INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science), has awarded two grants to the Algebra Project to address this problem. The program’s goal is to broaden participation in STEM education and workforce preparation, and it asks proposers to consider recent research showing the promise of collective action to create national impact (see Kania & Kramer, Collective Impact, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter, 2011). Awardees should design and develop a plan, as well as identifying needed support structures, for an alliance that would have national impact, over several years, on a particular problem in broadening participation.
With its roots in the collective action strategies used by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the Mississippi Theatre of the Civil Rights movement, the Algebra Project has been using a particular version of collective action that is “bottom up”. To develop a proposal, last spring, the Algebra Project began contacting its sites and partners, and reaching out to new ones, who are willing to commit to the following goal: to enable students now performing in the bottom quartile (on state tests) to graduate from high school on time with math proficiency necessary to take college math courses for college credit, and such that math is not an obstacle to a choice of career. The resulting proposal included over 70 individuals and organizations began work on Nov. 1.
The Algebra Project, Young People’s Project and Southern Initiative Algebra Project are now convening working groups who will develop a strategic plan that is grounded in the voices of those being served: the students, teachers, communities/parents, and schools where students are not being reached.
Four working groups are being formed: Student Voice, Teacher Voice, Community/Parent Voice, and School/District Leadership Voice. In January 2017, these groups began to consider what past practices and products have worked well and why, what needs revising and fine-tuning, and what needs new development, for national impact within five years. The groups presented their draft recommendations for discussion across groups and from national partners, advisors and experts, at a National Design Meeting held in St Louis, MO, Feb 17-19, 2017 which was attended by 134 students, teachers, administrators, university faculty, researchers and community organizers. This spring, these groups will revise recommendations, and proceed to identify their needs for specific technology supports, for measures of progress and or need for improvement, and for organizational supports that will allow the alliance programs to operate and collaborate successfully. These supports will be reviewed at a meeting to held in May 2017, funded by the second NSF INCLUDES grant. Discussions will be summarized in two papers: Strategic Plan and Theory of Action: Working from the Bottom Up, for presentations at conferences, for public dissemination, and as deliverables to NSF.
The Algebra Project is collaborating with Educational Testing Service (ETS), Princeton, NJ, in a third NSF research grant ETS received this fall to establish a universal learning progression for the concept of function that will adequately serve the learning needs of students performing in the bottom quartile on state tests. Two mathematicians who developed Grade 9 and 10 instructional materials for the Algebra Project, Greg Budzban, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville, and David Henderson, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, are collaborating with ETS researchers on a four-year grant.
Finally, the Algebra Project is subcontracting to Kennesaw State University in Georgia, in an award to Assistant Professor Alan Shaw and colleagues at the Dept. of Computer Science. Coding workshops for young people are a popular enrichment activity nowadays, but this research explores the link between doing coding and learning. It will examine whether and how programming in an object-based language (App Inventor, developed at MIT), when combined with the project’s five step learning process, can enhance math learning in low performing students. Dr. Shaw, together with Co-Principal Investigator Bill Crombie, Director of Professional Development for the Algebra Project, as well as Mr. Cliff Freeman and Ms. Sharita Underwood of the Young People’s Project, have created simulations and activities to accompany two Algebra Project instructional modules for Grades 8-10. Students learn to use the simulations and then to program them. Do the rapidly moving simulations capture students’ attention? Will students grasp certain mathematical relationships more quickly than without this component? Will their understanding hold up in new problem contexts? The Algebra Project has already established that its language-based learning process assists students who have struggled with math. In that process, students represent their experiences in ordinary language and pictures (“people talk”), and then break down “people talk” into “feature talk” that can be transformed into the abstract symbolic representations used in conventional mathematics. The question to be explored here is: how do the objects in this programming language enter into students’ learning process?