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Teacher Seeks to Inspire Students in Math, Science

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An AP Member Feature Exchange
By MAGGIE GORDON, Stamford Advocate

STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) _ If Susie has $12 and soda costs $1.25 a bottle, she can buy nine bottles. Simple math can solve that problem. But Vincent Urbanowski of Greenwich, an algebra teacher at Stamford’s Academy of Information Technology and Engineering, is interested in much more than simple math, and he wants his students to be, too.

“It’s good to use algebra to balance a checkbook and figure out how to buy enough soda with $12,” he said. “But in real world science, you can use math to do more than that. You can measure and touch the invisible.”

Rather than touching a grocery bag filled with plastic bottles, Urbanowski suggests students reach for the stars _ literally.

“How far away is the sun?” he asked last week, opening his arms wide, palms up, as he sat perched on a student’s desk in an empty science classroom at the school.

That’s the kind of question that takes more than a calculator and a No. 2 pencil to figure out. It requires taking a large problem, breaking it into smaller bits and piecing together an answer after several steps, he said.

Complex, multipart questions like this were a major part of Urbanowski’s summer during his seven-day stint at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California with three dozen other high school teachers from around the country. The weeklong workshop was part of the NASA-funded Eyes in the Sky II program, which aims to provide science teachers with the skills to bring NASA knowledge into their classrooms.

Before jetting off to Pasadena, Calif., to participate in the workshop, Urbanowski completed a 12-week online course in satellite imaging and geographic information systems. While analyzing satellite data about Earth may sound off-topic for an algebra and geometry teacher, Urbanowski doesn’t think so.

“The beauty of NASA, and of scientific inquiry, is that you ask this question over here, and end up answering this question over here,”he said, gesturing with his right and left hands, respectively.

“In math, we’ve been learning to calculate, but we’ve never fully switched over to calculating to learn,” he said. “If kids are introduced to real world problems in math, it will have a flavor of authenticity and be intriguing to them.”

And bringing these tangible examples of how people at the jet propulsion lab use math and science to solve problems can open his students’ eyes to possible career paths.

“These scientists are just normal people who grew up like us– maybe watching `Star Trek,’ maybe not– just paying attention in math and science and doing something with it,” Urbanowski said.

One of the requirements of teachers enrolled in the NASA program is that they implement what they learned in the classroom. Urbanowski will do so this year through a new aerospace course he’s piloting at AITE.

“Since we are a school that specializes in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education, we thought we would create a course in which students would have an opportunity to combine math and science opportunities in a way that would stimulate their thinking in a variety of areas,” Principal Paul Gross said.

Urbanowski has designed the curriculum for the elective, which will challenge students to build several flying objects over the school year, before designing and assembling a remote-controlled airplane for the final project at the end of the year.

“It’s an opportunity on our part to give our youngsters a course that’s different from what they might normally take and provide an exciting elective,” Gross said.

“They’ll do all the math involved in designing model rockets,” Urbanowski said. “My hope is that the kids will come out with an authentic experiment that will lead to an authentic understanding of math.”

Plus, it will be cool, he said.

After spending 12 hours a day for seven days in the student’s seat, and finding scraps of his “after-school” time to complete the required homework, he has a better understanding of what “cool” means for his pupils, and how important it can be.

“Sometimes the work was hard and baffling. Sometimes it was easy and boring. I got to see what it was like to be a student– when was I intimidated to ask a question, when was I `checking out.’ I learned that those emotions are normal, even in a motivated student,” he said.

There were times when the Greenwich resident was confused by the class work in California. But as he says, “‘I don’t get it’ doesn’t mean stop. That’s when scientists start working.

“If I don’t get this on Monday, I will on Friday. It’s about looking at things and being baffled, and then figuring it out,” he said. “What will you use math for? It will help you exercise your brain so you can work like this is in the future.'”

So once his students have a basic understanding of math and its application, they can shoot for the moon.

Online:

http://serc.carleton.edu/eyesinthesky2/

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/jpl/education/eyes-20091223.html

http://ait.echalk.com/

___
Information from: Stamford Advocate, http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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