London strategic consulting firm Firetail recently named Boise State one of the 20 universities in the world best positioned to challenge the higher-education establishment on a global scale.
While our cybersecurity partnerships and research in areas like materials science, environmental issues and cancer prevention are capturing headlines, the transformational research coming from our experts in math and science education is making a difference that will be felt for generations.
U.S. News & World Report ranked our College of Education as one of the top 75 graduate schools of education in the United States. But we have some big challenges to tackle. The United States has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the world, and the U.S. Department of Education reports that nearly half of those who graduate from high school and go on to college need remedial courses. Hard data show that preparing future teachers to engage kids in the learning process, and making sure teachers understand how to help children succeed, can transform education.
What this boils down to is that now more than ever we need to prepare kids to be independent and critical thinkers who not only know how to learn, but understand why it matters. At Boise State, our education researchers seek to meet this challenge.
One example is Jonathan Brendefur, a Boise State professor of mathematics education and director of the Initiative for Developing Mathematical Thinking. Although Idaho standardized testing doesn’t begin until the third grade, Brendefur is preparing kids to be analytical thinkers as early as kindergarten.
Like any math instructor, he teaches kids the importance of numbers and symbols. But he has found that stepping beyond that to teach spatial reasoning — the ability to think about objects in three dimensions and draw conclusions about them — helps kids solve complex problems and is a critical component in mathematical thinking.
Research has shown that engaging kids in the learning process, whether in math or any other subject, helps with comprehension and retention as well as problem solving. The good news is there are a lot of ways to get kids actively involved in their own learning.
Education professor and physicist Leslie Atkins Elliott has found that when science class allows for creativity and is relevant to everyday life, students’ understanding and love of science improves. Because of that, she’s a proponent of MakerLabs, social spaces where users build objects. She has found that questioning, discussing, designing, building, analyzing, arguing, refining and iterating helps build the creative and social environment that truly defines science.
In a similar vein, science education faculty Sara Hagenah has found that a critical part of the learning process involves how questions are framed. Where teachers used to be the ones asking questions, educators are now looking at what happens when students assess what they know about a subject and then ask questions based on what they don’t know. Students can then be encouraged to find evidence to support what they think the answer might be.
Data also supports the idea that learning together as a family takes learning from the classroom into real life. As a former K-12 teacher, assistant professor Julianne Wenner knew that many parents balk at the idea of teaching scientific concepts to kids. So she created a way to make it easy and fun. At Garfield Elementary School, a project funded by the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium helps provide an annual family science night, as well as backpacks filled with all the necessary supplies to pursue scientific experiments at home, along with lists of local family-friendly resources like museums, the zoo or the best places to explore nature.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the great work being done here at Boise State, where our College of Education recently was accredited under a new and tougher set of standards from the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation. We’re excited about the direction of math and science education and the proactive role our researchers are taking to make it more relevant at all ages. I invite you to read more about cutting-edge educational research in the latest edition of Explore, Boise State’s research magazine, at focus.boisestate.edu.
Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. His column looks at the state of scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.