RICHLAND -- It's obvious Amy Roth McDuffie is passionate about teaching math.
The Washington State University Tri-Cities education professor gestures frequently as she explains to her class of 23 students how elementary-age kids like to hear bits of their teacher's lives.
Studies show children learn better if they bond with their teacher and if they feel a connection to the story a math problem tells, she told her elementary math method class Wednesday.
Roth McDuffie is trying to help future teachers prepare to teach math to a diverse group of students. She recently received a $360,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for a five-year research project that looks at exactly how to do that.
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The National Science Foundation awarded $3.5 million to the TEACH Math project, which Roth McDuffie is part of, along with faculty from Iowa State University, which is the project lead, the University of Washington Tacoma, the University of Arizona, Queens College-City University of New York and the University of Delaware.
TEACH is the acronym for "Teachers Empowered to Advance CHange in Mathematics."
Roth McDuffie said she and professors from the other universities began working on the research project about three years ago. It was the second time they had submitted the project to the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency.
"I've always been focused on what works for students," she said.
Teachers have to reach students who have different socio-economic experiences, are of different races, ethnicities and cultures and who speak different languages, she said. That means understanding and appealing to the students' unique perspectives.
For example, the Tri-City population includes Spanish speakers and migrant workers, Roth McDuffie said.
People say math is all about numbers, she said, but it uses language too. An English word may mean something different in math than it does in normal conversation.
If teachers are aware of the words that are similar in different languages, that can help them teach math to students who speak English as their second language, she said.
Roth McDuffie, who started teaching at WSU Tri-Cities in 1998, said the project should result in lessons and information that will help the nation's professors who teach elementary math methods classes better prepare future teachers.
She plans to follow some of the students in her elementary math methods class through their student teaching and first year of teaching to see how they apply the different methods she teaches.
In addition to observing the teachers and their students, Roth McDuffie said she will provide support too.
Because she just received the grant, she isn't collecting data from her current class. But she is teaching them the methods she believes will better reach students.
Jessica Smith, a senior from Kennewick who is interested in teaching kindergarten to third grade, said the methods Roth McDuffie teaches in her class are different from those her own elementary school teachers used.
One of Smith's recent assignments was to find out how she could use a student's experiences to help her connect with a story problem.
The student Smith talked to was different than she expected. In class, the girl was quiet, but she was energetic in a one-on-one situation. And her home life and preferred activities differed from Smith's.
With that information, Smith's next step as a teacher would have been what she said she learned in Roth McDuffie's class -- that the girl should have an easier time understanding a story problem if she can connect to the story it tells.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org