Last update at : Wed May 3 10:49:56 1995

The Internet and K-12 Mathematics and Science Reform

The Internet and K-12 Mathematics and Science Reform

2 May 95

David A. Thomas

Stephanie Stevenson


Current efforts to improve United States K-12 mathematics and science education include the use of a variety of high performance computing and communication technologies. This paper examines the background, current status, and direction of this trend.


1 Introduction

2 The Local Schoolhouse

3 A Nation at Risk

4 The National Infrastructure for Education

5 The Network Montana Project

6 From Home Room to Home Page: Current Events in K-12 HPCC

7 Integrating Mathematics, Science, and Technology

8 Teacher Training Projects

9 Conclusion


Author Information

1 Introduction

Within a few years, global economics, politics, and technologies will become as important to our individual and collective lives as local economies, politics, and technologies. The slogan "Think Global ... Act Local" will become as universal as Coca Cola and MS-DOS. In response to these and other changes in society, formal education will experience a metamorphosis. We will build a global schoolhouse. Since imagining a global schoolhouse is the first step in building it, teachers, students, parents, and interested citizens everywhere need to rise to the challenge of reinventing education.

Dream with us a moment as we step into an intermediate school classroom that has integrated the best practices of the old and new educational paradigms. As you walk into the room, students are actively engaged in a variety of learning centers. The teacher is available to answer questions, to promote inquiry, to summarize and synthesize ideas, and to lead. All teachers in this school are themselves life long learners who love sharing the adventure and rewards of learning with others. Today the students are learning about weather. Let's walk around to see what is going on.

At one station, students are using CU-SeeMe Desktop Videoconferencing from Cornell University to speak with a Florida Explores meteorologist. She is helping the students set up a closed environmental system (terrarium) that models the Earth's atmosphere. She will use the model and the scientific method to guide the students through an investigation of the water cycle. Another group of students has gone to the media center to gather books and articles from the automated library system and CD-ROM reference materials explaining how to build their own weather instruments.

At the weather satellite receiving station, incoming, real-time satellite images of hurricanes, tropical storms, and large weather fronts are converted from analog to digital form and investigated using image display and analysis software. Used with Blue-Skies , an interactive program for browsing, viewing and reporting dynamic weather information in graphic and text format, these images help students to understand and make predictions of future weather events.

At another station, local weather observations and measurements gathered by students in ground-truthing experiments are compared to satellite images. Today, students are collecting data from the weather instruments on their indoor/outdoor weather station and recording it in their project journals. The journals contain their observations, data, graphs, hypotheses, conclusions, and final reports. In their journals, we see a seamless integration of science, mathematics, geography, language arts, and computer technology. In their faces, we see the future.

We stop to talk with some students about what they are learning. They speak excitedly about the new friends they hope to make as they share their data and ideas with students, teachers, and scientists around the world. For instance, they will soon take an "electronic field trip" to Antarctica with NASA scientists. On the "trip", they will learn about the ozone hole over Antarctica and its relationship to global ozone fluctuations. Their world is both smaller and more personal than that of their parents. They are becoming citizens of their community, their nation, and their world.

Another group of students takes your hand to show you their new "game." CliMoMan acts as a interface to the Oregon State University climate model simulator running on the National Educational Supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Using CliMoMan, students manipulate parameters that are known to have some influence on the development of weather and observe the consequences in the model.

As you reflect on what you see happening, you realize these students are being transformed into young scientific researchers as they apply their newly developed skills. They have already made the most important discovery of all, that learning is an exciting life long adventure.

Thinking about the global schoolhouse in an institutional sense is much more difficult than considering the exciting technologies available for the study of weather. How much of the local schoolhouse should we carry into the global schoolhouse? As students begin to sense their rights, responsibilities, and opportunities as individuals, will they also commit their talents and energies to building strong local, national, and global communities? What roles should formal education play in promoting and supporting life-long learning for all citizens?

2 The Local Schoolhouse

Around 1920, a young Georgian emigrant named George Papashvily stepped onto American soil for the first time and walked directly to the employment office, confident that he was ready for life in the new world. When the clerk asked what he could do, Papashvily [1] replied "I am a worker in decorative leathers particularly specializing in the ornamenting of crop handles according to traditional designs." "My God!" the man said. "This is the USA. No horses. Automobiles. What else can you do?" Papashvily was not deterred. His father had apprenticed him in a second trade as precaution against just such a circumstance. "I am also a sword maker. Short blades or long; daggers with or without chasing; hunting knives, plain or ornamented; tempering, fitting, pointing -". "My God! A crop maker. A sword pointer." exclaimed the clerk. Shortly thereafter, Papashvily began his career in America as a dish washer. His autobiography, Anything Can Happen, is hilarious. His life was hard.

This year, millions of young men and women will enter the work force with skills as irrelevant and outdated as George Papashvily's were in 1920. As much as we may sympathize with these young people, there are larger issues at stake than their individual futures, issues that threaten the stability and prosperity of entire nations. In a global economy, the most critical factors determining the success of any venture will be talent, information and capital. Corporations lacking the necessary talent at every level of their organization will not be able to compete. Nations lacking competitive corporations will not grow economically. At the same time, meaningful public discourse on the environment, natural resources, community and economic development, health care, and education cannot take place if the electorate is incapable of understanding the arguments. More than ever before, every citizen needs to be mathematically and scientifically literate and technologically competent.

3 A Nation at Risk

In 1983, Terril Bell, United States Secretary of Education, stated: Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world ... The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people [2].

Secretary Bell's concern was well founded. A series of international comparisons of educational achievement [3] - [6] made it clear that United States students were at best average when compared to the students of other industrialized nations. While students in other countries were learning to apply mathematics in a variety of contexts, United States students continued to labor over 19th century shopkeeper mathematics, paper and pencil arithmetic. Not surprisingly, the older students got, the less they regarded mathematics as intrinsically interesting or potentially useful. As a result, few students continued their study of mathematics past the minimum required for high school graduation. Fewer still were prepared for college level mathematics. Two reports were particularly influential in describing this problem and in stimulating a systematic response from the mathematics education community, The Mathematics Report Card: Are We Measuring Up? [7] and Everybody Counts: A Report Card to the Nation on the Future of Mathematics Education [8].

In 1989 the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published its Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics [9], the first comprehensive response to the challenges leveled at K-12 mathematics education. The Standards and subsequent NCTM publications redefine the objectives of school mathematics, teaching and assessment practices, and the role of students in mathematics classrooms. The central thrusts of these changes are to connect the various components of school mathematics to one another, to other disciplines, and to the real world in order to make the student an active participant in his or her mathematics education. As in all paradigm shifts, full implementation of these changes will take years; but meaningful progress is being made at the national, state, and local levels to explain the changes to students, teachers, and parents as well as to develop on-going professional development opportunities for mathematics teachers.

The situation with regard to science education is comparable. According to the United States Department of Education, only seven percent of high school seniors are prepared for college-level science courses [10]. One doesn't need to look far for explanations. In the 1990-1991 International Assessment of Educational Progress study, United States thirteen-year-olds scored thirteenth out of fifteen countries in science achievement, but placed first in the amount of TV watched each day [11]. In the United States, there is a pervasive attitude that science is a difficult, somewhat esoteric, and impractical area of study, pursued by an elite with a natural gift for it [12]. This idea is a cultural and economic time bomb ticking in our society. The time has come for education in the United States to make the transition from the 1890s objective of science for some in some grades to the 1990s goal of science for all in all grades [13].

With a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) is developing and testing a systematic response to these problems in its Scope, Sequence, and Coordination (SS&C) reform project [14]. In the SS&C project, each of the four basic science subjects -- biology, chemistry, physics, and earth/space science -- is taught every year. By emphasizing the scientific process and utilizing modern scientific technologies, this project seeks to motivate students to continue their science education through high school and college.

Working together, NSF, NCTM, NSTA, colleges and universities, state offices of public instruction, and other organizations and agencies have forged powerful new partnerships to address the crisis in mathematics and science education. Real progress is being made. Unfortunately, the positive results obtained so far have touched only a small portion of the teaching profession and their students. Serious attempts to scale these improvements from the project level to systemic reform await the development of an implementation strategy that will not be frustrated by layers of state and local government, the educational bureaucracy, or its characteristic financial limitations. The National Infrastructure for Education (NIE) Program of the NSF is the first step in the development of a technological and human infrastructure capable of developing and delivering mathematics and science education reform materials and training at a systemic level.

4 The National Infrastructure for Education

"The NIE Program aims to hasten the development of a widespread high performance electronic communications infrastructure in support of science, mathematics, engineering and technology (SMET) education reform, and to help lay a foundation on which strategies for the appropriate use of technology in support of increased student achievement can be developed. NIE's goal is to build synergy between technology and education researchers, developers and implementers so they can explore networking costs and benefits, test self-sustaining strategies, and develop a flexible educational networking infrastructure that will be instrumental in the dissemination, integration and application of technologies to speed the pace of educational innovation and reform" [15].

In 1994, NIE grants for planning (see Table 1), multi-year projects (see Table 2), policy studies (see Table 3), and supplements to existing projects (see Table 4) totaled $13.8 million. These awards reflect the breadth of approach taken by the NIE in fostering a K-12 telecommunications infrastructure.

Table 1 Planning Grants

Table 2 Multi-Year Projects

Table 3 Policy Studies

Table 4 Supplements to Existing Projects

5 The Network Montana Project

The Network Montana Project (NMP) planning grant is developing an infrastructure that:

The technological and human infrastructure of the Network Montana Project will:

The Network Montana Project will generate new knowledge about the development and use of educational networks in rural settings and the value of high performance computing and communication in K-16 mathematics and science education. The principal findings and products of NMP research will be published on WWW information servers created for this purpose.

6 From Home Room to Home Page: Current Events in K-12 HPCC

New WWW sites spring into existence every day as professional organizations, educational institutions, governmental agencies, and research institutes hoist their flags in cyberspace. Of particular importance to K-12 mathematics and science teachers are WWW sites that disseminate critical professional information, provide access to powerful computing resources, offer on-going professional development opportunities, and facilitate reform efforts through collaborative programs and projects. The following sites illustrate the variety of offerings currently available to K-12 mathematics and science teachers.

Meeting Places and Information Marts

Electronic Field Trips

7 Integrating Mathematics, Science, and Technology

Two years ago David Thomas visited a one-room elementary school in rural Montana. It was spring and a few of the children had horses tied up outside. Inside, he showed the students images of Mars taken by cameras onboard the Viking spacecraft. Bright and inquisitive, the children began asking questions such as, "How big is that crater? How long is that mountain range?" They were surprised when Thomas told them to answer their own questions the same way a scientist would, by measuring Mars with a scientific visualization tool. Over the next hour the class took an interest in and gained ownership of their investigation of Mars. They became explorers, first posing questions, then devising strategies to answer their questions, and finally interpreting their findings. For those students, seeing was more than believing. It was motivation and engagement, insight, satisfaction and pride. They loved being scientists!

Following this experience, a formal classroom activity was drafted and sent to Stephanie Stevenson for further development. Shortly thereafter, she and her fourth grade drop-out prevention students volunteered to pilot test and revise the activity for use at the intermediate grade level. Stevenson focused the lesson by asking her students, "What is the largest volcano in the solar system?" That question launched an investigation that integrated skills and concepts from mathematics, science, technology, language arts, and geography. Students began their search for information in the school media center's automated card catalog and the CD-ROM version of Grollier's Encyclopedia. The search produced no answer; but armed with reference books, the students returned to the classroom. They learned that volcanoes occur along the edges of tectonic plates; they learned there are several different kinds of volcanoes; and they learned that the largest volcano on Earth is Mauna Loa in the Hawaiian Islands. Still they found no answer to the question "What is the largest volcano in the solar system?"

"Do you think anyone on our modem would know, Mrs. Stevenson?" a student asked. The students sent the question to Kidsphere, an Internet discussion forum where educators and students share information and activities (To subscribe to Kidsphere send an email message to kidsphere-request@vms. Within hours, several scientists responded to the students' question, informing them that Olympus Mons on Mars is the largest volcano in our solar system.

Stevenson then introduced her students to the scientific visualization tool NIH Image 1.55 [16] and a collection of Mars images taken by the Viking spacecraft (see Figure 1). Over the next few weeks, Stevenson and her students developed and tested a version of the activity Measuring Mars: A Visit to Olympus Mons that took into account the academic background and interests of fourth grade students. About this time, a draft of a second activity entitled Measuring Global Sea Surface Temperatures was completed. Stevenson and her students again volunteered to act as partners in the development of this activity (see Figure 2).

Figure 1 Measuring Mars: A Visit to Olympus Mons

Figure 2 Measuring Global Sea Surface Temperatures

We have never seen a technology so appealing to students of all ages as scientific visualization. What is more important, we have never used a technology that evoked such a flood of genuinely insightful and thoughtful questions and comments. Students who normally confine their questioning behavior to clarification issues suddenly start making conjectures and suggesting possible means for gathering relevant information and testing hypotheses. This use of a powerful visualization tool, real scientific data sets, and the Internet appears to appeals to all students, even such students as Mrs. Stevenson's who have been identified as "at risk."

The Measuring Mars and Global Sea Surface Temperature activities have been described in an article [17], and additional materials are under development. Curriculum products such as these may be used to link students and teachers to scientific data products published by NASA and other agencies on CD-ROMs and on WWW information servers. However, publication is not enough to guarantee usage. Teachers need to be trained to use the technologies effectively.

8 Teacher Training Projects

At the 1995 Secretary's Conference on Educational Technology [18] TechConf/1995/ , United States Secretary of Education Richard Riley stated, "Schools and students have changed significantly in recent years, but teachers are still at the heart of instruction. If, as a nation, we expect to prepare all students for the 21st century, we must provide teachers with ongoing opportunities to be the most informed, the most capable, and the most inspiring classroom leaders possible." At the same conference Molly Merry, Colorado's 1995 Teacher of the Year, asserted that it is critical that teachers spend time throughout their careers updating their teaching skills and knowledge of how children learn. Today's teachers can improve continually through ongoing professional development that:

Currently, the educational community is exploring various models for developing and delivering Internet based professional development opportunities to K-12 teachers. The authors have some personal experience with the following programs.

9 Conclusion

The human and technological resources of the Internet cry to be harvested by teachers and students of all ages. Providing reliable, affordable access to those resources will take creative thinking and commitment on the part of technologists, teachers, parents, and many others. One of the functions of any scientific conference is to facilitate imaginative discussion among creative individuals. Teachers in touch with technology can imagine a compelling global schoolhouse. Parents and members of the Internet Society can imagine an educational system spanning the world that offers a life time of learning. Our colleagues and neighbors need to hear what we think the Internet can mean to teachers and life-long learners of all ages. We must lead the discussion. The imagining must begin with us. It is time for the discussion to begin in earnest.


[1] G. & H. Papashvily. Anything Can Happen. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940.

[2] A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983.

[3] National Science Board, Commission on Precollege Mathematics, Science, and Technology. Educating Americans for the Twenty-first Century. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation, 1983.

[4] J. F. Crosswhite. Second International Mathematics Study: Summary Report for the United States. Washington. DC: National Center for Educational Statistics, 1985.

[5] J. F. Crosswhite. Second International Mathematics Study: Detailed Report for the United States. Champaign. IL: Stipes, 1986.

[6] C.C. McKnight. The Underachieving Curriculum: Assessing U.S. School Mathematics from an International Perspective. Champaign. IL: Stipes, 1987.

[7] J. Dossey, I.V.S. Mullis, M.M Lundquist and D.L. Chambers. The Mathematics Report Card: Are We Measuring Up? Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1988.

[8] National Research Council, Board on Mathematical Sciences. Everybody Counts: A Report to the Nation on the Future of Mathematics Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1989.

[9] Working Groups of the Commission on Standards for School Mathematics of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989.

[10] "In the National Interest: The Federal Government in the Reform of K-12 Math and Science Education." Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, 1991.

[11] "Learning Science." International Assessment of Educational Progress, 1992.

[12] National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment. National Science Education Standards: An Enhanced Sampler. Washington, DC: National Research Council, 1993.

[13] National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment. National Science Education Standards: An Enhanced Sampler. Washington,DC: National Research Council, 1993.

[14] National Science Teachers Association. Press Release. Washington, DC, March 30, 1994.

[15] National Infrastructure for Education program. National Science Foundation, 1995.

[16] R.W. Rasband. NIH Image 1.55. Washington, DC: National Institutes of Health (available via anonymous ftp from, 1994.

[17] D.A. Thomas and S. Stevenson. "Integrated Mathematics, Science, and Technology: An Introduction to Scientific Visualization." Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, in press.

[18] Press release. Secretary's Conference on Educational Technology: Making It Happen, Washington, DC, March 7 - 9, 1995.

Author Information

David A. Thomas is an associate professor of mathematics education in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT 59717.

Stephanie Stevenson is a teacher at Holley-Navarre Intermediate School, 1936 Navarre School Road, Navarre, FL 32566.

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