Putting Idaho parents in the STEM equation

University of Idaho research looks for ways to boost adults’ math and science confidence.

broberts@idahostatesman.comOctober 7, 2013 

  • QUIZ ANSWERS

    1. True 2. False 3. True 4. False 5. False 6. True

Parents, take this science quiz. True or false:

1. Diamonds are made of carbon.

2. Lasers work by focusing sound waves.

3. Electrons are smaller than atoms.

4. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.

5. The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs.

6. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

When the University of Idaho asked these six questions in a survey of Idaho parents on attitudes toward science and math, 60 percent of the parents missed at least half of the six questions. (How’d you do? See the answers on the right side of this page.)

U of I’s research also shows that many parents are squeamish about their own math and science skills and unsure of their ability to help their kids with their homework in those subjects.

Parental limitations might be contributing to the reluctance of students across the state to pursue more science, technology, engineering and math classes, said Melinda Hamilton, director of STEM Education Initiatives at U of I, and a co-principal researcher on the project.

“We don’t have a hard link to the data,” Hamilton said. “Candidly, that is something we should be investigating. I think there is a link.”

PARENTS PLAY A PIVOTAL ROLE

The importance of parental influence in guiding Idaho students into math and engineering is part of a five-year U of I study underwritten with a $1.2 million grant from the Micron Foundation. It’s aimed at helping businesses better understand the barriers that keep future job applicants out of those fields.

Parents need to be cheerleaders for STEM education, but they also need better information on how to prepare their children to get into courses of study that lead to those careers, Hamilton said. Without that information, STEM education might not even be discussed between parents and children.

“We’d like them to be informed,” Hamilton said.

At the Boise home of Hunter Hamilton (no relation to U of I’s Hamilton), the topics of math and engineering come up regularly but at a low level, say his grandparents, Stan and Diana Hamilton.

Hunter, 15, didn’t like math as an elementary school student. But his grandparents didn’t give up. They went through flash cards and helped with homework.

In the sixth grade, Hunter had a teacher who helped him focus on math.

“Once I got to algebra, it was really easy,” said Hunter, now a sophomore at Borah High School.

Stan Hamilton has a degree in civil engineering and is a former director of the Idaho Department of Lands.

He and his wife have talked about college and Hunter’s interest in engineering. Hunter loves to tinker. Over the summer, he and a friend cobbled together a four-wheel bicycle out of used parts.

The family’s values are making a difference in Hunter’s life. He’s planning to study engineering, possibly at a college in the Midwest or East, he said.

“If we hadn’t have talked about it, I wouldn’t have cared,” Hunter said. “It makes me feel like I can go out and do it.”

Today, the elementary school kid who hated math takes accelerated geometry in high school and looks forward to Algebra II. He’s earned A’s in math since seventh grade.

MAKING MATH REAL

U of I researchers are working on ways to help parents help with math.

Julie Amador, an assistant professor of mathematics education at U of I in Coeur d’Alene, is part of the research project. She put together a 16-minute video for parents in the Post Falls School District to see whether it helps them with math. Research showed that 49 percent of parents in Kootenai County, where Post Falls is located, had trouble helping their children with math and science homework occasionally or often.

Parents view the video on You Tube and answer some questions. The video helps them understand Idaho Core Standards, a new set of education goals aiming to help students grasp underlying math principles and not just try to get right answers based on memorized rules.

The video also shows parents how math is around them every day — at gas stations, home addresses or in figuring out the price of a can of soda in a 12-pack costing $4.99.

The goal: “How they can help their kids in everyday math,” Amador said.

“I wanted something quick and realistic.”

Her video has been available to Post Falls parents for a few weeks. So far, she’s received 90 responses, most of them favorable.

“This video showed me how to work through a problem with my child, rather than jumping right to the end to figure out the answer,” one respondent wrote. “I realized that the process is just as, if not more, important than arriving at a right answer.”

Others asked Amador for more examples of where to find math in everyday life.

She said she is encouraged by the responses, which she is still analyzing. “(There is) some early success,” she said.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408,Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

Tell U of I researcher Julie Amador what you think of her video below. E-mail her at jamador @uidaho.edu.

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