How do you get elementary students hooked on math? ¶ Get them thinking about numbers all the time every day, educators say. ¶ Chocolate bars are handy for learning fractions. Pizzas help explain geometry. ¶ "Parents can incorporate problem-solving math in the kitchen, in the car, while they're grocery shopping,'' said Lia Crawford, elementary mathematics supervisor for Hillsborough County Public Schools. ¶ Give kids confidence with the basics, she said, and they'll fall in love with math, a skill that serves as a building block for the rest of their education — and for much of life.
Math plays a huge role in creating a competitive workforce, a top priority among state and national leaders who look to STEM education — the study of science, technology, engineering and math — to mold the next generation of great thinkers.
According to the Labor Department, 15 of the 20 fastest growing jobs in the next two years will require significant mastery of science and math.
Those include careers in health care, interactive entertainment and biotechnology.
In some instances, "We're getting our kids ready for jobs that don't exist, yet,'' Crawford said. "We can't teach them the same way we did 20 years ago.''
Children still read textbooks and memorize multiplication tables, but they also need to become problem-solvers, collaborators and thinkers.
That's the drive behind new national academic benchmarks known as the Common Core State Standards.
More than 40 states, including Florida, adopted the more rigorous standards last year for courses that include math and science to make sure students are career- and college-ready when they graduate.
Many students struggle with math throughout their education, with more than half of all graduates having to take remedial courses in college.
Helping them understand the role math plays in the world is the key, Crawford said.
"They need to see that math is everywhere,'' she said. "From the minute they get out of bed until the end of the day, they're doing math.''
This past spring students at Miles Elementary, in north Hillsborough's Lake Magdalene area, stopped in the halls to jot down solutions to math problems posted on the walls.
If they got it right, their names were announced on the morning show.
"So they're not just walking through the hall,'' Crawford said. "They're thinking about math as they walk.''
Third-graders sat in groups, where they worked together using different geometric shapes to make new ones — a rhombus, a trapezoid, a polygon.
When they finished, reading resource teacher Darryl Frost called them to the front of the classroom to explain their answers.
There was no shame in wrong answers. Instead, students helped one another by discussing their missteps.
The experience taught them it's okay to make mistakes, Frost said. It also showed them that math is a process, one that requires patience and practice.
At Heritage Elementary in New Tampa, fifth-grade math teacher Ashley Nader used similar learning strategies with her all-boy class. Students learned how to measure the volume and surface area of a rectangle, parallelogram, triangle and trapezoid.
Collaboration was part of the lesson.
"They learn, 'If I'm stuck, a discussion with other students moves me forward,' '' Crawford said. "They also learn how to articulate it.''
For 12-year-old Julius Colon, figuring out why he got the answer wrong was just as important as knowing how to get it right.
"Sometimes, it can be easy and hard at the same time,'' he said. "That's what I like about math.''
Paulwin Mappanalil, 11, said he knew he liked math as early as the first grade.
"I was good at it,'' he said. Plus, "My mom really pushed me. She makes me study a lot.''
Encouragement goes a long way.
During the Hillsborough County Math Bowl in May, 9-year-old Scotty Bubanas led his team from Heritage Elementary to seventh place.
When did he figure out that he liked math?
This year, in Lora Torres' third-grade class, "when I knew I had a good math teacher.''
Sherri Ackerman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.