Using a $1.5 million grant from the Mississippi Department of Education, CMSE developed the summer program, dubbed Project PrIME, or Promoting Innovation in Mathematics Education, to help teachers improve their content knowledge in mathematics. Sixty middle school teachers from across north Mississippi participated in the inaugural summer institute in June at Della Davidson Elementary School in Oxford.
The goal is to help the teachers better engage their students this fall, said Angela Barlow, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at UM and co-principal investigator for Project PrIME.
"We want these teachers to develop a better understanding of mathematics," Barlow said. "Research shows that teacher-led instruction inside the classroom with a couple of practice problems neither meets the needs of all of our students nor does it prepare students to be successful in the workplace."
Brian Buckhalter, a sixth-grade mathematics teacher in Oxford, applauds the approach. He hopes to use ideas gleaned from Project PrIME and a similar training session in his classes this fall. The greatest tool he employs is going beyond those "mundane textbook work sheets," he said.
"Engaging students with true problem-solving and true thinking is key, and believe it or not, they are receptive to that approach," Buckhalter said. "A two-week commitment here in the summer guarantees me 36 weeks of success during the school year. We learn how to connect and encourage our students, which helps me bring math to life for them."
That kind of engagement is crucial to helping lift the state both educationally and economically, Barlow said.
"Mississippi traditionally ranks last or next to last on national mathematics assessments," she said. "Regardless of where the country stands in the world, we're not doing our job here in Mississippi. It's really unfortunate."
By helping teachers rethink how mathematics is taught, the institute's organizers hope to help students better appreciate, enjoy and gain confidence in their math skills.
One of the greatest obstacles is students' fears of the subject matter, Buckhalter said.
"Earning my students' trust is one of the hardest aspects," said the three-time teacher of the year. "I tell my students that math will be challenging and difficult but it's not impossible. I try to make math not so dreadful and have them trust me."
The summer institute will be followed during the school year by a virtual professional learning community and school site visits. Instructors include various UM faculty from science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.
Organizers also plan to incorporate the business community into the process. Local industries are set to produce podcasts demonstrating how mathematics is employed in their respective businesses, so teachers can show students the importance of mathematics in the workforce, Barlow said.
"When you can improve a student's disposition towards mathematics, then they are set to gain in terms of achievement in mathematics," she said.
To learn more about the UM Center for Mathematics and Science Education, visit olemiss.edu/programs/cmse.