Reviving Interest in Math and Science

Duke faculty members look at the crucial years when students lose interest

Snapshot of an interactive math Alice world designed for fifth grade students to practice rounding numbers.
Snapshot of an interactive math Alice world designed for fifth grade students to practice rounding numbers.

American students lag behind their peers throughout the world in
science and math, placing the country at a disadvantage on a range of important
issues including energy, security and scientific research. Civic leaders,
including the president, have pointed to the challenge the United States faces in
reviving the interest and abilities of its students in math and science.

Duke faculty members Nancy Shaw and Susan Rodger are
committed to addressing this critical issue. Rodger, professor of the practice
in Duke's Department of Computer Science, is particularly interested in
attracting more women to computer science. To that end, in 2005 she created the
Duke Emerging Scholars in Computer Science (DES-CS), a program initially
funded by the National Science Foundation. Rodger invites incoming first-year
students to apply for the program, designed for those with little or no
computer programming experience.

"Students can try computer science with a group of other
people who are also trying it for the first time," she said. "Doing this program,
students meet other people with whom they can feel comfortable going through
the major. They also get to know the undergraduate peer leaders who serve as
mentors to them."

Rodger also teaches a computer class for non-majors that incorporates "Alice," a program that allows users to easily create an animated 3D virtual
environment. "That class is often 50 percent women who end up really enjoying
computer science," she said. "But the problem is that students in the class are
often juniors and seniors who have already decided on a major that isn't
computer science."

Rodger classroom
Susan Rodger instructes two students in a DES-CS course.

So, Rodger decided to expand her reach to K-12. With a grant
from the National Science Foundation and IBM, she and colleagues developed a
program to teach teachers from middle schools and some high schools, to
program in Alice and discover how they could incorporate it into their various
subject areas.

"I wanted to focus on middle school because I think that's
the crucial point," Rodger said. "We ran a three-week workshop in 2008, the
first summer of this program. I have run workshops for teachers every summer
since. What is interesting is that we get teachers in all different
disciplines -- math, sciences, English, art, music, media, business -- and they all
see different ways in how they can use Alice with their students."

Like Rodger, Nancy Shaw thinks that the middle and high
school years are the critical times to introduce students to the world of science
and math. Shaw -- the director of North Carolina's "Project Lead the Way" at
Duke's Pratt School of Engineering -- is concerned about the decreasing number of
students interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)
education.

"For some reason, many students aren't very interested in
science and math," Shaw said. "They are frightened of it or don't think it's cool.
So Project Lead the Way (PLTW) provides classes, in schools throughout North
Carolina, which are interesting, hands-on and project-based."

Shaw said that
students quickly get interested in completing the projects, so they become
motivated to learn the science and math that will enable them to do so. "Students love these courses because they are able to work in teams," Shaw
said. "And any time you give students something to do with their
hands, they are automatically more interested."

PLTW began at Duke in 2003 along with four other schools in North
Carolina. Now there are nearly 70 schools throughout the state offering PLTW's
real-world, problem-solving curriculum. More than 1,000 students are benefiting
from the wide range of classes -- including offerings such as Introduction to
Engineering Design, Aerospace Engineering and Computer Integrated Manufacturing
-- taught by specially selected teachers who are trained during an intensive,
two-week boot camp at Duke.

Shaw -- who was one of five women among the 200 electrical engineering
majors in her graduating class -- considers it critical that both more women
and men pursue careers in the sciences. "One of my concerns is that, as our
nation ages, we have fewer American students who can lead in the areas of
technology and science," she said. "I want to see our U.S. students continue to
meet the challenges of the country and the world."