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Can a project- and place-based approach to secondary mathematics education change how students think about math and themselves?

November 05, 2021

Project Loci researchers publish a report detailing their research questions, methods, and findings.


Project Loci, a research-practice partnership between the School of Education and secondary mathematics classrooms, aims to gauge, understand, and elevate students' perceived mathematical value, motivation, confidence, and enjoyment. In fall 2021, Amanda Brown (neé Milewski), Carolyn Hetrick, Justin Dimmel, and Chandler Brown published a report on Project Loci, There's No Place Like Home: re-discovering ourselves by making mindful connections to our community with natural mathematical questions

For some time, authors of the Project Loci report write, there has been a growing national concern about the number of high school and college students facing mental health issues, including depression, eating disorders, and anxiety. Often, the report notes, these issues present with symptoms that impact a student's social and academic functioning. U-M donor Michael Mackey enabled the U-M Depression Center and the School of Education to explore school-based interventions that would attend to both the emotional and academic development of high schoolers. 

To better understand and mitigate these issues, the U-M Depression Center partnered with Byram Hills High School (BHHS) staff for a three-year collaboration. The Depression Center provided BHHS faculty and administrators with training and resources to support their use of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness. The outcome was successful in that BHHS staff reported that the training gave students, teachers, and administrators a shared language to discuss mental health challenges. But the results also led to another point of inquiry: could targeted modifications to classroom instruction further help students? The goal of Project Loci was to help students maintain academic excellence and college preparedness while also increasing their autonomy and self-motivation as a means to decrease stress.

Given research which supports the academic and social-health benefits of place-based and project-based learning, Project Loci investigators wanted to see if applying such a method to secondary math instruction could help improve conditions for this student population.

The researchers began by understanding the BHHS student experience, then assessed the feasibility of an instructional intervention, and finally assessed the preliminary impact of the intervention on the BHHS student experience. 

Researchers looked for differences in the experiences of students in intervention and non-intervention courses (those mathematics classes with and without the introduction of place-based tasks) and compared them both with that of students from a more immersive place-based semester program. 

Relying on teacher reflections, teacher interviews, and classroom observations, as well as results from a pre-post survey administered to gauge students’ perception of mathematics and mathematics instruction, and data collected from student interviews, authors of the report wanted to understand the following:

  1. What changes in student experiences in mathematics class and attitudes toward mathematics occurred during participation in a place-based learning experience?
  2. What is the relationship between participation in a place-based learning experience and changes in students' experiences in mathematics class and attitudes toward mathematics?
  3. What is the relationship between participation in a place-based learning experience and students engagement in realistic problem solving?

While the resulting information leaves open opportunities for further exploration, authors of the Project Loci report concluded the following:

  • Using classroom observation and teacher reflection, the project team concludes that the research practice partnership between U-M and BHHS managed to inspire a cohort of precalculus teachers to re-imagine the ways in which their project-based classroom activities could be integrated with local, regional, and national contexts that would be of interest to their students.
  • In their reflections, project teachers reported their participation in an immersive place-based professional development was "transformative."
  • Drawing from interview data with students in both intervention and non-intervention classes, researchers were able to conclude that those students placed in the intervention classes perceived meaningful differences in their experience within mathematics classrooms. This is reflected in the ways that students in intervention classes reported greater typicality of activities like students leading boardwork and group work activities than students in non-intervention classes. It was also evident in reflections from students in intervention classes, in which they shared that place-based projects and labs marked “atypical” days in their mathematics classes. In contrast, students in intervention classes reported test or concept review days as examples of “atypical” days. 
  • From the survey results of students in all three groups, the researchers have reason to believe that project-based experiences can play a role in shaping some aspects of students' attitudes toward math as well as their perception of classroom instruction. Additionally, by examining the responses of all three groups to mathematical tasks, researchers conclude that students in school-based interventions with problems-based instruction may be more likely to engage in mathematical sense making than those participating in similar interventions in contexts outside of school.

In addition to publication of There's No Place Like Home, the end products of Project Loci researchers' work include an immersive, place-based professional development program for secondary mathematics teachers, and a set of curricular materials for supporting place-based education in secondary mathematics.

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Assistant Research Scientist, Marsal Family School of Education