Matt Felan is pitching an executive on bringing their business to the Great Lakes Bay Region, the first question they typically ask, he says, isn’t about tax incentives or infrastructure.
“The first thing they ask about is talent,” said Felan, chief executive of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance. “They want to know what we are doing to invest in this region to build our talent pipeline.”
A look inside a third story, sixth grade classroom at T.L. Handy Middle School in Bay City on Thursday, April 20, offers a glimpse at that investment and how STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education programs are improving test scores and strengthening the mid-Michigan region’s talent pool.
Eleven- and 12-year-old students who tested below their grade level in math are on laptop computers adding fractions and calculating the area of rectangles in a virtual world, helping a cartoon penguin journey to the next level.
Unlike a traditional textbook where the problem is printed in black and white, the virtual curriculum is highly visual.
When asked to figure out the sum of 1/4 and 1/2, for instance, the game-based curriculum includes a photo of a rectangle below each fraction that’s divided into four equal parts. For 1/4, the students need to color in one of the parts in the first rectangle to represent 1/4 and two of the parts in the second to represent 1/2. As a result, they can visually see that when added together, three of the four parts — 3/4 — is the answer. They then watch JiJi the penguin cross the screen to a problem that’s more difficult.
The software is called Spatial-Temporal (ST) Math and it’s being used as an intervention tool to bring students’ math skills up to grade level.
More than halfway through the year, teachers are seeing results.
At the midterm, there were 204 students at Handy and Bay City Western middle schools in the intervention program. Of those students, 54 percent showed growth toward their grade level; 30 percent showed double the amount of growth.
At Handy alone, about 60 percent showed growth.
“We’ve never seen that type of growth before in anything we’ve done,” said Ryan Boon, principal at Handy. “And we’re only a half year into this.”
Growth is measured using Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) assessment tests.
Kasandra Pardo, 11, was working a lesson Thursday, trying to figure out where a fraction fall on a line chart. She said math isn’t her strongest subject, but being able to drag her mouse cursor and see it graze the digital line helps her comprehend the assignment.
“When you can see it that way, it is a little easier,” she said.
In a traditional classroom setting, if a student doesn’t comprehend how to solve a math problem, they might be told to try it again, but only slower, or more carefully, the next time. ST Math, however, detects any hurdles the student may have and shows them a different way of thinking in how they can solve it. As a result, 15 kids in a classroom could be working on 15 different math lessons at once.
“The ability to customize those learning paths is really amazing,” said Lori Flippin, the newly hired STEM initiative leader for the regional alliance. “As they master something, it levels them up until they hit their grade level and then they can move on to the next concept.”
ST Math is one of the first major STEM initiatives introduced by the regional alliance to hit the classrooms. The program, which cost $64,000 was funded by private donations from Dow Chemical Co., the Dow Corning Foundation and the Bay Area Community Foundation
In 2014, the alliance commissioned a study that showed fourth and eighth grade students were behind in the classroom when it came to math. As a result, it was recommended to address the issue in middle schools first.
“The thinking is that we can still remediate the issues in the middle school, but more importantly, we can get kids that opportunity to make it through Algebra I, which is huge,” Felan said. “If you can’t get through algebra, you can’t go any further in math.”
In 2015, the alliance setup networks with Saginaw Valley State University, Central Michigan University, Delta College and Mid-Michigan Community College to figure out the best approach to upping middle school math test scores. The network ultimately recommended to go with ST Math.
A year later, 30 school districts applied for funding to implement the program, with six of those districts, including Bay City Public Schools, receiving the grants. Essexville-Hampton Public Schools has implemented a mixed model of the math program and Freeland Public Schools was approved for a program to serve students below math grade levels and those who are excelling.
Last month, Flippin, a former assistant superintendent in the Essexville-Hampton school district, was hired on full-time as the alliance’s STEM leader. Her goal is to tie area business initiatives with education initiatives in an effort to attract more business to the region.
Regional officials are hoping the pilot program in Bay City can serve as a blueprint for the rest of the region.
The alliance is part of a national STEM Ecosystems project made up of about three dozen other communities scattered across the nation that share their best practices. Felan said his team has been in close contact with a group from Cincinnati, Ohio, who has also implemented ST Math. He’s also had conversations with New York City Public Schools, which is also putting an emphasis on middle school math.
“When you see that the largest public school district in American is focused on this and that we’re focused on the same thing, we feel justified that what we’re doing is the right thing,” he said.
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