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Study Finds Benefits to Infusing Math Into Science Lessons

With the prevalence of the acronym STEM in education parlance today, interest has grown in not just promoting the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as separate entities, but in figuring out the ways they can intersect to enhance learning.

A recent project funded by the National Science Foundation took this issue to heart, by supporting the development of a math-infused science curriculum and then studying its effects on math learning.

New findings from that project show a statistically significant boost in math achievement for the 8th graders exposed to the lessons, when compared with a control group of students who were not.

"What we found from year one was that the kids ended up doing a lot better in math," said co-author James Lauckhardt, a senior research associate at the Center for Advanced Study in Education, part of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Lauckhardt said there were limits on the data available on science achievement, but that he and his fellow researchers did not find any evidence that the math focus diminished science learning.

The study was recently submitted to the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education for publication.

The research project was supported through an NSF grant of $2.1 million over three years. The principal investigator for the grant was David Burghardt, the co-director of the Center for STEM Research at Hofstra University. The other co-authors of the study were Maria Russo and Deborah Hecht from CUNY's Center for Advanced Study in Education.

The project involved the development of lessons that asked students to use what they already know about math concepts and apply it to science, Lauckhardt said.

"So they were introduced to the math more frequently than the control group but in different (and we think more meaningful) ways," he wrote in an email.

The project involved the development by curriculum experts of 29 "math-infused" science lesson plans for 8th grade teachers. They were asked to select six lessons and implement them over the course of the academic year. Each lesson was expected to take about five days.

The lessons were structured so that students would encounter increasingly complex math that supports the study of linear relationships. Three levels of math were introduced: graphical representation of data; examination of slope and visual understanding of linear and nonlinear lines; and contrasting linear and nonlinear lines and developing linear equations.

The first-year research focused on eight schools and 20 teachers, with half using the math-infused lesson plans and the 10 teachers in the control group doing "business as usual," Lauckhardt said.

The study explains in greater detail what was learned.

"Most notably, student-reasoning skills increased for students in the infusion group above and beyond what would be expected during a typical school year," the authors write. "In essence, students who received math infusion were able to apply their knowledge to unfamiliar situations or contexts."

They also had more practice with math and were better prepared to tackle a variety of math concepts. As a result, they showed stronger scores on a state math test, according to the study.

"This finding is encouraging, as it implies that students who learn math in a variety of contexts are better able to retain mathematical concepts and perform better than students who only learn math as a stand-alone content area," the study says.

Lauckhardt said that beyond the change in test scores, another difference the researchers discerned was that students who participated in the math-infusion lessons over the course of an academic year showed a stronger positive attitude toward math. Lauckhardt said what appeared to happen was that the positive attitude toward math waned for students in the control group over the year, while it stayed about the same for participants.

Although this might not on its face sound terribly encouraging, Lauckhardt reminded me that these students were right at the tender age when a fondness for academics often falters.

"Middle school is a time when the [positive] attitude toward school goes down," he said.

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