Math students at Byram Hills High School left pen and paper behind and went outside to draw graphs on the pavement in chalk, adding their own bodies to create the third dimension and bringing their algebra, trigonometry and calculus studies to life.
Under a sunny sky, precalculus students stood on the football field and used ribbons to represent vectors as they worked to determine the distance between their position and a point in the stands.
In another instance, they ran and crouched in a bear crawl across a field to simulate swimming as they used calculus to figure an optimal path between two points by putting each form of movement to its most efficient use.
These lessons came as the high school began piloting the use of place-based learning in several units of math instruction in spring 2018 through a partnership with the University of Michigan School of Education. It’s the start of a gradual shift at the high school toward more student-centered instruction and standards-based assessments — an approach that emphasizes authentic learning over traditional testing.
Place-based education is a teaching method that draws upon questions and issues that arise in the students’ own local, national and global communities and natural environment, their sense of place. It seeks to incorporate students’ life experiences into the classroom and bring topics that students are naturally curious about into their learning.
By focusing on real-world problems that students feel connected to, giving students a greater sense of independence in their learning and inviting them to be more active participants in their learning, place-based instruction aims to increase student engagement and motivation. These factors, University of Michigan experts believe, can help prevent the academic stress that has become too common in high school life.
Dr. Elizabeth Moje, dean of the School of Education, said she was grateful for the partnership with “the talented teachers and leaders at Byram Hills High School on this innovative placebased learning project that strives to create a more supportive environment for addressing students’ personal and academic needs.”
“The instructional strategies, lessons, and research developed through this program will serve as a compelling model for mathematics educators to equip children and youth with the skills, motivation, and self-efficacy necessary to engage deeply in learning opportunities that are inquiry-based and meaningful,” she said. “As a result, young adults will develop a foundation for future academic and career success while also understanding how to connect what they learn to the world and their communities.”
Principal Christopher Walsh, who says the place-based math units have helped the mathematics “jump out of the textbook,” believes that this type of instruction will enrich the learning and the lives of all students.
“It is more real world and it offers students the opportunity to discover math rather than being given math. It involves more critical thinking, it is more open-ended and it is moving away from the idea that there is only one correct answer in mathematics,” Mr. Walsh said. “It is more aligned with the real type of work that our students will be doing in college and after in their jobs.”
“The primary goal is to offer ways of delivering math that are not traditional, with the hope that it will lead to a reduction in stress and anxiety over the long haul, and lead to greater learning,” he added. “We’re very excited to have a partnership with such a great place like the University of Michigan. We know we’re getting the best and the most current information.”
Before teachers began the place-based units, the mathematics chairperson, Lisa Pellegrino, and three precalculus teachers, William LaRue, Christopher Lewick and Stephen Skonieczny, traveled to Eleuthera in the Bahamas during spring recess last year for professional development with University of Michigan researchers. A generous grant made the trip and the place-based math instruction at Byram Hills possible.
The teachers spent time at the Island School, which has a place-based curriculum, and participated in place-based learning of their own.
For one activity, the teachers stood on a sandbar and had to calculate the distance to the horizon. On another day, they were on an uninhabited island and were asked to determine their location in terms of longitude and latitude. They used a sextant, a navigational instrument, and math to pinpoint their location.
The trip gave the teachers a new perspective. Even before their flight home, they were brainstorming ways they could begin sharing this learning style with students.
“There was an excitement and emotion and a passion in math that was reinvigorated as part of that trip,” Ms. Pellegrino said. “The shift was immediate. The next day, teachers were already doing things differently.”
The biggest place-based math effort to date came in December, when about 120 precalculus students participated in a lab that tried to answer a question about why areas near the school are prone to flooding, focusing on the flow rate of water. Researchers from Michigan, who are studying how educators can make incremental change in their teaching approach, were on hand to observe.
Dr. Amanda Milewski, the School of Education’s project investigator for the partnership, said place-based instruction is a good fit for Byram Hills because it may aid students who are intensely worried about their future.
“Place-based learning can help prevent stress and anxiety in high schoolers by helping students to focus on engaging productively with problems that are bigger than themselves,” she said. “It is in vogue around the country now as educators try to make subject matter more relevant and increase engagement and motivation.”
The lessons have been well received by Byram Hills students and teachers, Ms. Pellegrino said.
“It is great to see how much autonomy these types of activities provide our students,” she said. “These activities have enabled students to develop a deeper, more emotional connection to the content. As a result, they are less focused on academic stressors and instead are focused on engaging with the material.”
More place-based math units are being developed, and Mr. Walsh hopes to expand the use of the teaching method to all content areas. The best learning happens, he says, when it is student- centered, focused on real-world experiences and involves more authentic assessments.
“Place-based learning very much aligns with the values of our learning community and the mission of our district,” he said.