A bus minus a whale equals a new look at math


What first-hand knowledge do West Philadelphia middle school students have about whales? Probably not much, considering the scarcity of whales in the area. New Jersey’s Adventure Aquarium doesn’t have any on display, nor does Baltimore’s National Aquarium. (Although there was that time a beluga whale made its way up the Delaware River.)

If a sixth-grade math lesson were to ask students to do multiplicative comparisons of whales of different sizes, the kids might have trouble conceptualizing the animals’  dimensions and scope. Perhaps, says Janine Remillard, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education (GSE), the math question should focus on a man-made mammoth that Philly students are more familiar with—a SEPTA bus.

Along with GSE lecturer Caroline Ebby, and several GSE doctoral students, Remillard has developed the Community-Based Mathematics Project of Philadelphia, a group of Penn faculty, students and middle school teachers in Philadelphia that adapt and design mathematics curriculum to reflect the local community.

Remillard says the project began two years ago, when Ebby was working in West Philadelphia’s Wilson and Lea Elementary schools, providing professional development and support.

The schools were using a national middle school curriculum called Mathematics in Context (MiC) that teaches math through the use of realistic situations. Ebby says she noticed that the teachers at Wilson, as well as their students, were struggling with the MiC curriculum because many of the situations it presented were not relevant to children living in urban areas. Some of the math problems described hiking in the mountains or renting motorbikes during an island vacation. 

Using funds from a grant provided by GSE Overseer Ruth Moorman and Netter Center Advisory Board member Sheldon Simon, Remillard and Ebby set out to design a new curriculum that would be more relevant to Philadelphia middle school children.

Ebby and Remillard say their curriculum follows the same MiC principles of using real-life context as a “springboard” to get students engaged in math. “The difference is ours is tailored to the kids in the city, and we started with the kids in this neighborhood,” Ebby says.

To devise the curriculum, GSE doctoral students spent time observing middle school classrooms, and Remillard and Ebby worked with teachers to adapt locally relevant units.

In their curriculum, SEPTA buses are referenced instead of whales. Comparing the number of kittens in a litter is replaced with comparing the amount of sugar added to various drinks popular among children.
“[We use] context that has relevance to them, that they could relate to, and in this case, something that has some social importance in terms of understanding health,” Remillard says.

Many students wonder why they need to learn geometry. To help them better understand its importance, Remillard and Ebby present information explaining how William Penn developed the streets of Philadelphia along a grid system, and how a coordinate grid system can be used to determine location and space.

“That’s a way for them to relate to the coordinate plane in a very real context and help them find their way around the city that they live in,” Ebby says.

One seventh grade unit in the curriculum uses Philadelphia high schools as its real-world context. Remillard says middle school students expressed concern about the lack of information they were receiving about the high school application process, so Remillard and Ebby created situations where the students use math to learn about high schools throughout Philadelphia.

[We use] context that has relevance to them, that they could relate to, and in this case, something that has some social importance in terms of understanding health."

One middle school teacher reported that after using one of the locally relevant units, a student remarked that it was “like having a home field advantage.”

Remillard says the school teachers have played a vital role in helping to develop the curriculum. “Even though we spend time in schools in the kind of work that we do, these teachers see kids on a daily basis,” she says. “They know what kinds of things they’re interested in, what kinds of things they do on the weekends, what kinds of difficulties they have.” 

With more funding, Remillard and Ebby would like to continue working with classroom teachers to develop curricula around other locally relevant contexts.

“We want this to be used by teachers in schools in real classrooms,” Ebby says. “We think we have some pretty good ideas.”

math education