Math can inspire fun, math savvy in elementary, middle and high school students

Math can inspire fun, math savvy in elementary, middle and high school students

Math can inspire fun, math savvy in elementary, middle and high school students

Jennifer Valazquez enjoyed science, and math. But from the very first day of math, something started bothering her.

“We all knew how to add and subtract and add fractions and all that stuff. But for some reason, multiplication works on such a mystical level,” says Valazquez, a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis. “No one really knew what the pattern was.”

She didn’t give up on math – she was just determined to figure it out. Once she did, it became one of the most integral lessons in Valazquez’s science education class. Her efforts resulted in high GPAs and a science teaching job with the National Science Foundation.

In fact, Valazquez is so captivated by numbers that she applies math, physics and astronomy skills to problem-solving every day. These topics are part of her daily routine as a researcher in the Department of Psychology. And math skills aren’t just good for the brain.

In a new study, co-authored by UC Davis behavioral and educational sciences assistant professor Jai Khorchand, Valazquez and her colleagues report that incorporating arts into other subjects can make learning fun, persuasive and more effective.

Just in time for learning season

Since Valazquez worked in the California Department of Education, she says the shift to new Common Core State Standards taught her to recognize that math learning isn’t just about getting stuff done.

“When I was working with science students, we focused a lot on science facts: What the earth is like, how the oceans work, what living things are,” she says. “And a lot of students really struggled with those things. But with math I could see that students could relate these numbers to figures that they already knew.”

And their engagement and satisfaction was rewarded in the end.

More than 500 secondary schools in California use Valazquez’s research. Each day, she visits class and demonstrates how to think algebraic and integrated math can be fun. Then she delivers a grade-appropriate lesson that includes activity sheets, bulletin boards and posters.

Learning at an angle

The researchers suggest this is one way a secondary school teacher can encourage students to think differently about science. Unlike the approaches taken in most classrooms, the method doesn’t require any massive lesson plans.

Rather, the learner-to-applicant theory, as it’s called, acts as a catalyst for elementary and secondary students, exposing them to concepts that reinforce and build on one another.

“Students will feel more personally engaged and more comfortable with the application of math skills and may be more likely to continue to learn as well,” says Khorchand, who has researched this model in the past.

While a solution for today’s challenging standardized testing environment is unclear, Khorchand says integrating arts into the curriculum can also offer a more personalized approach to instruction.

“It’s a learning model that is engaging for students and makes the relationship between student and teacher more intense,” he says.

The new UC Davis study will be presented Jan. 29 at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science.

Katrina Schwartz is a member of the UC Davis News Service staff.

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