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Empowering Mathematics Education: Insights from the Arizona Data Convening

On February 27th, a dynamic gathering of over a hundred classroom educators, state education leaders, higher education and community college faculty, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropists convened in Phoenix at the Helios campus. Their mission? To spearhead statewide discussions on the future trajectory of mathematics education for Arizona students. 

The central question guiding these discussions was profound: “If we reimagined mathematics, what would we want to see in 10 years?”

Dr. Deborah Hughes Hallett, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Arizona and adjunct at Harvard Kennedy School, answered the question directly: 

“Automation won’t take away jobs from students directly, but students may lose jobs to someone who knows how to use AI.” 

Dr. Hallett discusses the growth of data science as a major at ASU

Dr. Hallett argued mathematics teachers should be at the center of tackling this new world and in adapting the curriculum expectations: “There was a time when logarithms were for hand-calculating things. That is now out of date.” Her experiences at Harvard and in reforming the teaching of Calculus proved it is possible. “I had my undergrads code in R & Python to do mathematics… and we all survived, shockingly.”

What would these changes look like in K-12 curriculum? 

Dr. Hallett’s insights underscored the need for a fundamental shift in the K-12 curriculum towards real-world applications. Nigel Nisbet of MIND Research, an educational technology company that has been working to create software-based experiences for elementary students for over a decade, echoed this sentiment, also highlighted the importance of imbuing math learning with real-life relevance. “Actual problems, actual questions, and actual data [make] the math learning meaningful.” To underscore this point, Nigel shared with the group a photo from 1942, displaying a room of women performing computations by hand.

“This was the original mandate for math education, to correctly calculate the budget totals or computations of a mechanized super-computer. How many people today are employed for procedurally accurate mathematical computations? Zero.” -Nigel Nisbet of MIND Research

Paul Tighe of the Arizona School Administrators Association agreed and emphasized the importance of connecting math education to students’ lived experiences in order to rekindle students’ engagement and enthusiasm in math. 

“Somewhere between Kindergarten and the end of high school, students go from loving math and finding it very engaging to absolutely hating it or being discouraged from it.”

Tighe argued students need better contexts, connections, and content that connects to today’s modern realities. “Why are we having kids learn how to solve linear systems of equations? Sometimes it’s a little hard to think of applications of that content, aside from two trains meet from a platform and asking when will they meet? Students can just look that up online or use ChatGPT to find the answer.”

To illustrate his point, Tighe recounted his own experience recently taking students to a local (VT) aerospace engineering firm and linking linear questioning systems to the methods military jets employ to ensure fuel access when damaged through their advanced onboard technology and sensors.

Creating modern math experiences will require support, resources, and training for educators — if not a different culture entirely. “We need to change the cultural perception of teachers… other countries do that," added Tighe. Many other countries have also already established data science and data literacy education as a national priority and undertaken education reforms to prepare their students and citizens for a more competitive, data-rich, and sophisticated world, as evidenced in Data Science 4 Everyone’s recent report Beyond Borders: Primary and Secondary Data Science Education Around the World.

What opportunities could data science education unlock, particularly in Arizona?

The discourse expanded to encompass the potential of data science education in Arizona. Helen Thomas of the Arizona Department of Education emphasized the significance of integrating community context into the curriculum and leveraging data science to address locally relevant issues: 

“A lot of tribal communities are passionate about community education, and how can we bring that community context into the classroom will be critical.”

Through datasets on local water access, economic opportunity, or even migration patterns, data science coursework can allow teachers to explore community-relevant issues and connect them to mathematics. “We need to build relationships both horizontally and vertically across the system, including in summer or out of school, where students are learning math and data science across the system, to have more concerted efforts to bring this vision to life,” said Thomas. 

Others were more adamant about what is needed for the near future.

Educators brainstorm what infrastructure is needed in classrooms

Melissa Hosten of the Center for Recruitment & Retention of Mathematics Teachers at the University of Arizona underscored the importance of aligning assessment practices with the evolving demands of the digital age: 

“We are losing students who are mathematicians by not counting their understanding, and we’re keeping a really anemic group of math content standards on the pedestal…That assessment you are using to determine where you’re students are, is it emphasizing place-values, or a significant focus on statistics, data science, and geometry? My guess is the former. The tests aren’t measuring any success for the latter.”

What will the future of data science look like in Arizona?

The future is already here for some students, brought to them by innovative work from educators across the state like Blais Cross, a high school math teacher at Bisbee Unified School District. This past year, Ms. Cross’ students conducted an original project to collect, organize, clean, analyze, and communicate data, analyzing the rates at which the schools’ students eat breakfast after some students expressed concern to her that their classmates were regularly skipping meals.

Students invented a data collection plan and leveraged data collection tools including Google Sheets, Pyret, and DataClassroom to interrogate multiple potential hypotheses. After collecting survey data, cross-referencing other school-level data from the cafeteria, attendance rates, perceptions of food quality, meal cost, student mental health, and bus schedules, students determined the highest correlation in their model was between bus arrival times and meal-skipping. They also discovered that students’ buses were systematically arriving late several days each week, resulting in missed meals on a frequent basis. Ms. Cross shared that discovery is, “what leads to… are you just going to be another statistic, or are you going to do something about it?”

Ms. Cross with her Bisbee High School Breakfast Survey Class and Survey 

Motivated by their findings, students then prepared a presentation to the school board to advocate for policy change on the timing of school-provided meals. Rather than simply making a rhetorical argument or a speech at a school board meeting, the students developed a data-driven presentation that was highly visual and explored multiple hypotheses through careful argumentation. The data made a difference for the Board, as Ms. Cross explained:

“Once the school board realized that our data told a very a strong story, and the cafeteria’s own data matched their work and suggested a similar issue, the board decided to change the timing.”

After this project, Ms. Cross was surprised to see even her students who typically didn’t engage in mathematics become passionate and inspired: 

“As a member of Ms. Cross’s CoStats class, I found this project to be very inspiring. For one of the first times in my life, I watched my classmates genuinely want to engage in the discussions, share their theories, and play their part. I could tell that the majority was passionate about making some changes. Even students that generally choose not to engage academics were into it, and even showed up to speak to the school board” — Student in Ms. Cross’s CoStats Class, Bisbee Unified School District

The class’s work would eventually appear in an article in the Sierra Vista Herald Review:

“If you hold students to high standards, they will rise to the occasion. But you have to give them the opportunity,” Ms. Cross shared. In her class, students also analyzed ACT test performance, MLB pitching speeds, and ways to optimize the angle of solar panels.

“Our students were successful in changing the minds of our administration and our board to shift the breakfast time. Maybe I am a rogue ambassador for data diplomacy. That’s what we called the project. Data diplomats.”

Reflecting on her experience to date with Data Diplomats, Cross was clear on what is needed today:

“It’s very important to me to be a data literacy advocate for every student, every time, in every classroom. No matter what. That’s my bottom-line. I don’t care what you call it, whether statistics, data science, or a purple elephant.”

Students from Ms. Cross’s class shared reactions to participating in data collection

Eboney McKinney, Director of Mathematics and Educational Technology Standards at the Arizona Department of Education concurred. “Curiosity, creativity, other reasons to care… we lose that along the road to math.” McKinney concluded, “collectively, we can shift what math teaching looks like in the state of Arizona.”

The UArizona Educators in Data Science (EDSci) Fellowship was created to support middle and high school educators in integrating real-world data science learning experiences into their classrooms while fostering diversity in the data science field. The fellowship, open to all interested educators, accepts up to 20 fellows annually. Accepted fellows will participate in a 5-day summer data science professional development in June 2024, followed by monthly virtual meetings facilitated by the UArizona Data Sciences Academy. Fellows are expected to create a narrative of their data science journey and will receive compensation for their participation. The application deadline is May 15, 2024, and interested applicants can apply here and find more information about the Fellowship here.

The Arizona Data Science Summit is made possible through the generous support of the Burton Family Foundation and PI Mak from Arizona State University.


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