Tufts School of Arts and Sciences Receives $9.5 Million to Launch the Poincaré Institute for Mathematics Education

September 10, 2010

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Patrick Collins

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. -- A Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences project to strengthen mathematics education for middle school children in school districts in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire has received a $9.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation Math and Science Partnership Program.

 The five-year grant will team public school teachers with mathematicians, physicists and educational researchers from Tufts' Arts and Sciences faculty under a single umbrella named the Poincaré Institute: A Partnership for Mathematics Education. Tufts is working closely with TERC, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to improving mathematics, science and technology teaching and learning.
The Institute models the School of Arts and Science's Fulcrum Institute for Leadership in Science Education (fulcrum.tufts.edu/), a two-year series of online graduate courses that prepares K-8 teachers to lead research-centered science learning and teaching, also funded by the Math and Science Partnership Program of the NSF.
More than 120 teachers have received training in Tufts' Fulcrum Institute. Fulcrum's final group of teachers "graduated" in May. Some will continue their training with the Institute through a one-year fellowship program.
A Middle School Focus
The Poincaré Institute, named after French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré, will apply a format similar to Fulcrum but will focus exclusively on mathematics education at the middle-school level and its connections to elementary and high school.
School of Arts and Sciences Professor of Physics Roger Tobin, a co-investigator on the project, says the Poincaré Institute reflects the university's on-going focus on improving the skills of teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Middle school is crucial because it is the point at which students begin to work with abstract quantities rather than just specific numbers. They should be expanding their knowledge about numbers and number systems and start a smooth transition between arithmetic and algebra.  But this is when many students lose interest in the subject.
Effective teaching, says Tobin, could reverse that trend. "To have an impact on students you need to work with the teachers to deepen their intellectual knowledge of the subject matter they are trying to teach their students," he says.
Poincare's second goal will be to help teachers identify the ways in which students learn and think about mathematics, says School of Arts and Sciences Professor of Mathematics Montserrat Teixidor-i-Bigas, the principal investigator from Tufts on the project. "The Poincaré Institute aims at preparing knowledgeable, enthusiastic, confident middle school mathematics teachers who can work as a team in educating the children in their classrooms," she says.
To accomplish its goals, the Poincaré Institute will offer an online curriculum of graduate level courses on mathematics and on pedagogical content. Current research in mathematics education, including research developed at Tufts and TERC within NSF sponsored projects on early algebra (earlyalgebra.org), will guide pedagogical content and discussions.
Middle school teachers will visit the Tufts campus before each course begins. They will hold weekly meetings at their schools and will receive monthly visits at these meetings from Arts and Sciences and TERC faculty and researchers. Teachers will receive feedback and share their classroom experiences. This information will enable Poincaré's administrators to make ongoing refinements and ultimately assess the program's viability as a model for other university-school partnerships.
Teachers will also be groomed to take on leadership roles in their districts, sharing their new knowledge and skills with colleagues. "We've found that some teachers do not have the best grasp of math concepts because their own math background is a little spotty," says Dover, N.H., School Director for Curriculum, Assessment & Intervention Jean Briggs Badger. Dover is a participating school district. "Becoming more comfortable with the material will enable teachers to encourage students who might otherwise lose interest in mathematics," she says.
Poincaré will complement other STEM related programs at Tufts such as the M.S. and Ph.D. programs in Mathematics, Science, Technology, and Engineering Education for the preparation of researchers and educators (a collaboration between Tufts Department of Education, its Sciences and Mathematics departments, and the CEEO - Center for Engineering Education Outreach), the M.A.T. programs for the preparation of mathematics and science teachers, the  M.A. for Science Teachers (based upon the online courses created by the Fulcrum Institute) and the new M.A.T. in engineering education that supports the CEEO's goals of integrating engineering into education. Tufts' Center for STEM Diversity helps the university better coordinate all recruitment and retention efforts for underrepresented students pursuing degrees in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. 

Poincaré will serve nine school districts in the three states. The participating districts are Fitchburg, Leominster, Medway, Medford and Somerville in Massachusetts; Dover, Sanborn and Timberlane, in New Hampshire, and Portland in Maine. 

The Institute is scheduled to begin in the fall with course development. The first course will be taught in spring 2011. Sixty teachers are expected to enroll in the first class.
The Poincaré Institute's other co-investigators are Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences Professor of Education Analúcia Schliemann, David Carraher of TERC and John O'Connor, superintendent of Dover, N.H., schools.
About Tufts University
Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.