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Math + Civic Engagement = Success for LSU Students and the Community

Math is no longer a four-letter word for many public school students who are benefiting from LSU service-learning students taking math from the classroom to the community.

Through tutoring, online resources, and research, faculty and students are modeling a scholarship of engagement through mutually beneficial partnerships with East Baton Rouge Parish public schools.

“LSU is not just an educational institution, but a part of a community that traditionally stopped at LSU's gates,” said Professor Robert Perlis, 2007 TIAA-CREF Service-Learning Fellow and the most recent Math Department faculty member to incorporate service-learning in a course. “It is my hope that my students can help improve the lives of those living outside the gates and can learn from them as well. It is in this reciprocity that LSU and the community will begin to develop a new view of what we can do together.”

“We live, teach, and work in a social context,” Perlis added. “I think it is a wonderful thing to be engaged in abstract mathematical research, but at the same time I see problems around me. It is my duty to do what I can to help alleviate some of them, especially the ones that impinge on my chosen field.”

Service-Learning and Math: An Easy Fit

Service-learning has been a part of the LSU math program since 2001, when Stephanie Kurtz – through a Service-Learning Faculty Incentive Grant – proposed a service-learning project in which her students would communicate math concepts to others.

“There is always a great need for math tutors in the public schools, so this was an easy fit for service-learning,” Kurtz said.

Kurtz was joined by Debra Kopcso and most recently by Perlis, all of who are devoted to engaging their students in the larger issues of life through either required or optional service-learning assignments. To date, their students have introduced a more understandable and enjoyable version of math in 13 public schools – from elementary through alternative education.

Elementary education majors in Kurtz and Kopcso’s course, “Geometry, Reasoning, and Measurement,” tutor in elementary schools.

“Although it is a math content class, communicating mathematics in a clear, easy-to-understand, mathematically correct manner is something we stress in our math class for future teachers,” Kurtz said.

“We felt that service-learning would give our students real-world experience communicating mathematics with children near the age they would likely teach someday.”

It is an experience quite different from communicating mathematics in a college classroom, Kurtz added.

Most recently, Perlis offered students in his 400-member course for liberal arts majors the option of tutoring in three public elementary schools.

“This course was created to be a ‘math culture’ course, intended to give a sense of the broad sweep of math and to help students become aware of some of the great moments in mathematics that changed thinking,” he said.

“The course has very few formulas or numbers, almost nothing of what many people usually think of as math. A major goal is for students to learn to see math as something other than just a set of calculation rules, namely as something fun, as a subject they can discuss, much as music or history.” 

Student Attitudes Shift to the Positive

Prospective tutors attend a training session, pass a skills test, and submit to a background check. Students then record observations of their one-hour sessions. They also write reflections, relating their tutoring experiences to the academic goals of their course.

“My students tutor in public elementary schools, so they are taken out of the role of student and, for a while, become the teachers,” Perlis explained. “Having spent an hour encouraging a third-grader that ‘math is fun … you can do it … just concentrate and try,’ a student in my class is bound to give extra effort in my course.”

Both Kurtz and Perlis saw their course dynamics change when service-learning became a key component.

“We've noticed a tremendous shift in the attitudes of the students toward the class,” Kurtz said. “Rather than complaining about ‘when am I ever going to teach this,’ they see for themselves that they'll be teaching most of what we cover at an earlier age than they previously thought.”  

Students began to assume a personal responsibility for the children they tutored.

“Many students said they signed up to tutor because of the extra points, but they found that they really enjoyed the experience,” Perlis said. “Many students chose to tutor beyond the required sessions because they felt a connection to ‘their’ school child.”

Some who considered themselves weak math students find that teaching math is easier than they thought. 

“Others who always found math easy find out that communicating mathematics is a lot harder than they thought,” Kurtz said. “In both cases, they tend to be more motivated. We often get the comment that our service-learning project is the best thing they have done at LSU for any class, because it is the first time they can put into practice what they are learning.”

Math as a Successful Tool for Civic Engagement

The work of math service-learning extends beyond tutoring through online resources Kurtz developed for tutors at LSU and in the community.

“Volunteers in Public Schools began a pilot program called ‘EveryOne Counts’ where adult volunteers commit to spend one hour per week in math tutoring for an elementary school child,” Kurtz explained.

“Many of these volunteers do not have a background in teaching, and the information on my Web site was given to them as another source of information, guidance, and encouragement. Those who do use this information have said that the ideas for activities and the discussion about how math learning takes place make them feel more confident going into a tutoring session.”

As TIAA-CREF Fellow, Perlis is charged with conducting service-learning-related research.

“I will be the first to admit that it is a big step for me as a research mathematician to learn how to effectively conduct research in pedagogy.” he said. “Fortunately there are many people on campus who have expertise in these areas and who have been very generous helping me to prepare.”

Perlis will investigate the math-specific benefits accrued from service-learning, the best way to measure these benefits, and ways in which benefits can be made part of course instruction. He will also look at what constitutes effective reflection for math students.

Both Kurtz and Perlis said many of their students had never been in a public school classroom prior to their tutoring assignment.

“It is an eye-opening experience for them to work for an extended period with the children there,” Perlis said. 

“My students come away impressed with the teachers' dedication, impressed with the sometimes shocking quality of the facilities, and with the warmth and gratitude of the children.  Most realize that they have not made a permanent change in a child's life, but most feel good about their interactions, and perhaps that will translate into other and better interactions later in their lives.” 

Roxanne Dill | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Fall 2007

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