• Julia Olkin, Julie McNamara

Innovative Ways of Teaching Math in Oakland

Cal State Faculty Combine Forces to Build Comprehension and Confidence

We may not expect a group of Oakland teenagers to happily give up a week of their summer to develop math skills. But that’s exactly what two dozen entering Oakland High freshmen did the last week of July, in a summer math program developed by Cal State East Bay faculty and funded by the Warriors Community Foundation.

The summer math week focused on building both understanding and confidence, to help the students move forward in the future. It is the product of several years of collaboration between Dr. Julie McNamara, Assistant Professor of Teacher Education, and Dr. Julia Olkin, Associate Professor of Mathematics. Typically, math and science faculty focus on knowing their subject matter, and education faculty on pedagogical methods for reaching students in the classroom. Professors McNamara and Olkin stand out for their work together in developing holistic new methods for more effectively engaging students in essential subjects such as math.

The two are affiliated with the Institute for STEM Education at Cal State East Bay, which strives to provide a diverse, often under-served constituency with quality STEM education. Their methods start with a creating a supportive environment that includes social engagement, team-building, presentation of “low-floor, high-ceiling tasks” (meaning any student can begin the task, and those who are up for the challenge can go as complex as they choose), and, for the full-day summer classes, lunch.

The students, many of whom had experienced past failures in math classes, built skills in graphing, geometry and algebra using sugar cubes, linking cubes, videospaint, and other materials. They worked in college-like teams at tables, with plenty of walking around, idea sharing, and poster-making. In just a week, their favorite moments revealed a change in their sense of their own strengths: “[This exercise was my favorite because . . .] “ . . .it was very confusing but I didn’t give up.” “ . . .I realized I didn’t treat x and y as variables and equals.” One student, whose favorite part of Day 1 was “break and lunch”, ended the week with, “This whole experience taught me a lot of math and gave me a lot of confidence.”

Not surprisingly, a strong favorite of the week was 90 minutes spent with Jason Spector, an analyst for the Golden State Warriors, who used basketball statistics to explain how math is used in the “real world,” and shared his experiences from high school and college.

Also appreciated were the two teacher’s assistants, Kenya Bradford and Tenisha Alston, both African American undergraduates from Cal State East Bay. “The students loved interacting with them and forged bonds,” noted Dr. McNamara. “For many of these kids, going to college is likely not the norm, or the expectation. Meeting college role models who the students can relate to is crucial.”

“Cal State East Bay is proud to be leading the way in combining our best education practitioners with the subject experts in math and science, to develop the dynamic, sensitive methods needed to reach all students in our diverse region,” declared Ed Inch, Provost of the University. “We are grateful to the Warriors Community Foundation for once again helping us prove the effectiveness of these new strategies,” he continued. “This helps us understand what improvements are needed that will foster lifetime success for all our students.”