Math education and engagement in West Philadelphia

This fall, students in Math 123 applied the skills they learned about math education and communication while working with 10th graders at Paul Robeson High School.

two people looking at a student who is pointing at a math equation on a white board
This fall, students in Math 123, one of Penn’s Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) courses, applied the skills they learned about math education and communication while working with tenth graders in West Philadelphia.

Armed with miniature white boards and colored markers, 30 10th graders are busy chatting and working with Penn students on a Thursday afternoon. Split across several rooms in the School of Nursing’s Fagin Hall and fresh from a neuroscience laboratory activity and short lunch break, the students from Paul Robeson High School spent the hour honing their math skills as their college-aged mentors discuss problem-solving strategies, work through examples, and provide real-time feedback.

The students taking part in this afternoon study session are all part of Math 123, one of Penn’s Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) courses offered this fall. Through a combination of weekly lectures and lesson plan development, followed by in-person activities, Penn students applied the skills they learned about math education and communication while engaging with students in the West Philadelphia community.

Inspiring an appreciation for math while bolstering essential skills

Mona Merling, assistant professor and Math 123 instructor, first became connected to Robeson through associate professor Lori Flanagan-Cato who leads the Everyday Neuroscience ABCS course at the school. After hearing that teachers were also interested in having an algebra-focused ABCS class, Merling began to teach Math 123 in parallel with Flanagan-Cato’s class.

The goal of this ABCS course, says Merling, is to provide Penn students with the skills to be mentors and to lead hands-on activities that help 10th graders prepare for the Algebra I Keystone Exam, which is required to graduate in Pennsylvania.

Each week, Penn students discussed course readings, heard from guest speakers, and discussed what worked and what didn’t from the previous week. Working in small groups, students also presented their lesson plan for the upcoming activity in order to refine strategies on how to best present new concepts and find solutions to math problems.

“This class gives Penn students the opportunity to interact with the community while building interaction skills. And there’s an interesting dynamic because students come in with their own struggles with math, so they can teach from that perspective,” says Merling. She says that’s because the course attracts a variety of majors and different levels of interest and affinity for the subject.

a group of students working at an outdoor tent on math equations
To work around on-campus COVID-19 restrictions, Math 123 students initially met outside by Locust Walk on blankets and also spent one week working at tents near the Graduate School building. (Image: Rita Hodges)

In addition to being able to work in-person with the Robeson students this fall, the curriculum for this semester was recently enhanced thanks to funding from the Netter Center’s Penn Graduate Community-Engaged Research Mentorship program. Last summer, Merling’s graduate student Maxine Calle worked with Robeson teachers to learn more about their students’ needs and curated resources about math pedagogy to provide a framework for the Penn students as they developed activities and lesson plans.

"The course has a twofold goal: We’re trying to help the high school students prepare for this standardized test, which is something the Robeson community wants, and we’re also trying to inspire both the Penn and Robeson students to be more excited about math,” Calle says.

For teachers at Robeson, the Math 123 ABCS course provides an opportunity to help their students fill in any knowledge gaps before taking the Keystone exam. And, even with recent improvements in math test scores across the Philadelphia school district, Lou Lozzi, who teaches math and science at Robeson, says that there is still an ongoing need to bolster the fundamental math skills that students need in order to pass the Algebra I test.

“We assess students, get the information back, but nobody ever goes over what they did wrong, and that’s where Mona’s class really helps,” says Lozzi. “It allows us to have our students take some of the concepts that they’re struggling with and have conversations about how to solve a problem.”

Working with students in West Philadelphia

Each Thursday just after the lunch hour, Penn students met in small groups with Robeson students, working with the same students each week, to go over key math skills and work through practice questions. Groups were structured so that there was a small student-to-mentor ratio, allowing Robeson students to receive more individualized feedback.

James Baker, a freshman in the School of Engineering and Applied Science from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, says that working with the same group of students and establishing good relationships was “paramount” for the class this fall. And while Baker says that he gained a number of skills about how to teach math, such as demonstrating how to do problems in different ways, one important lesson he learned was the ability to adapt their lesson plans when needed.

“Since we only have an hour and a half, you have to be okay with not teaching all of the content. You have to take a comprehensive look at what the student knows and what they don't know and adjust your methods so that they’re getting the best experience,” he says.

Even though the fall course looked more “normal” than last year, when Math 123 was entirely on Zoom, there were still a number of logistical challenges related to COVID-19. To work around on-campus restrictions, Math 123 students initially met outside by Locust Walk on blankets, then worked at tents near the Graduate School of Education building, and for one week Penn students worked in the auditorium at Robeson.

Then, starting in November, the Netter Center arranged for alumna and current Emerson Fellow at the Netter Center Kathleen Givan to conduct rapid testing at Robeson so that the students could work in classrooms at Fagin Hall. Merling adds that despite the challenges posed by COVID restrictions, it was “amazing to meet the students” and see the connections that were made during the in-person activities.

on the right, students work in groups on math problems looking at laptops and on the left a student points at math equations on a white board
From working with negative numbers to dividing by units of time, students in Math 123 worked on a wide variety of essential math skills to prepare for the Keystone Algebra I exam.

Alison Liu, a Wharton School sophomore from Shanghai, says that visiting Robeson was one of the most eye-opening highlights of the course for her. “I remember the first day we were talking, and I realized that for a lot of their classmates going to college isn’t something on their mind. I’m hoping that, even if we are making a small difference in their lives, it will help change what they want with their futures,” says Liu.

Rayan Bilal, a College of Arts & Sciences senior in neuroscience from Abu Jalfa, Sudan, worked as the teaching assistant for both Math 123 and the neuroscience ABCS class and also shared her perspective as a high schooler in Philadelphia with the Penn students. “In my high school, not a lot of people went to college, so not a lot of people would have seen value in a math program,” says Bilal. “It really means a lot to be able to help students who went through similar circumstances, because I know what it’s like, and I know they want to learn.”

Continuing to partner and engage with the community

Lozzi would love to see this math ABCS course expanded to other grades in the future and attributes Math 123’s success these past two years to the strength of the partnership between Merling, Robeson, and the Netter Center. “The class works really well because we have this relationship that allows us to address the needs of the students. It’s been an extremely rewarding experience watching this grow,” says Lozzi.

In terms of takeaways for both the Robeson and the Penn students, Calle hopes that Math 123 helps the high school students “feel confident in themselves as STEM students” and that Penn students were able to connect with West Philadelphia. “I also hope this class gives both Penn and Robeson students a positive experience with math,” Calle says. "I’d love for them to know that math can be a really creative subject and that there’s more than one way to be good at it."

Bilal hopes that the Penn students have seen how their engagement can impact the lives of others and that the Robeson students will see the mentors they worked with as a new support network. “I’ve seen a lot of friendship forming between the Penn students and the Robeson students, and I think that having that support system, knowing that the Robeson students can be in Penn one day, would be the takeaway I would like to see them go with,” says Bilal.

For Baker, Math 123 was “refreshing,” and he describes the course as something he would look forward to each week amidst the stresses of college life. “I leave the class feeling good,” he says. “Math 123 partially offers a way to handle all of that stress, so I am very grateful for taking that class.”

“It’s a good break from your regular classes, and Math 123 is probably one of my favorite classes I’ve taken at Penn,” says Liu.