IC Helps Schools Introduce New Math Techniques
The Ithaca Journal, Saturday, 01/09/99
By Margaret Claiborne

ITHACA - When a group of mathematicians gets together to work on a challenging problem, you might think they would soon be up to their trifocals in formulas and symbols.

Not always, maintains Ithaca College mathematics professor Eric Robinson.  "They do lots of things. They draw little pictures.  They mess around.  They look for patterns.  They share information, and they have fun - all driven by a desire to see and explain how things work."

That is how Robinson would like his own students at IC to approach mathematics.  But his experience has been that many of them are interested only in memorizing the formulas that will allow them to pass next month's tests.  "Then they forget them," he said sadly.

After years of struggling to turn student attitudes around at the college level, Robinson welcomed the reform effort begun by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989.

The result has been the development of curricula for kindergarten through 12th grade that poses real world problems and requires students to develop their own problem-solving techniques.

"There may be only one right answer," Robinson said, "but there are lots of ways to getting to it.  The point is, students have to think."

Using that approach to mathematics requires a profound change in the way students learn and teachers teach, said Margaret Robinson, mathematics professor who supervises student math teachers in area schools.  She is married to Eric Robinson.

That's why the couple wrote a grant proposal three years ago to establish a center that would coordinate and disseminate materials about secondary school curricula that grew out of the reform movement. They understood that schools would need a central source of information about the various programs. They would also need help choosing an appropriate curriculum, and they would need to know where to go to get supportive training.

Two years ago, the National Science Foundation funded the Robinsons' $3.7 million proposal, and the Curricular Options in Mathematics Programs for All Secondary Students (COMPASS) was born.

Robinson is the director, Margaret Robinson is the associate director, mathematics professor John Maceli is assistant director, and Linda Roach is the program coordinator.  Housed on the third floor of Williams Hall on the Ithaca College campus, the walls of the one-room center are lined with new secondary curricula from the five pilot projects funded by the National Science Foundation.

Since COMPASS was founded, two other NSF-funded centers have been set up to disseminate information about new elementary and middle school curricula.  But a number of new math programs for elementary and middle schools are on the COMPASS shelves.  Both Robinsons believe that it is imperative for a school district to have a math curriculum that is consistent, philosophically, kindergarten through 12th grade.  Their materials at the earlier levels are not complete, they emphasize, but they think it is helpful for school representatives to at least get an idea of what's available for younger students.

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Last Revision: 10/04/05