Wayne State Offers 'Real Life' Math Applications
From maximizing profits to investigating a crime scene to selecting a college to scheduling a workforce, multi-step mathematics problems are deeply embedded in real life.
This school year, hundreds of high school students across Michigan will be exposed to the more practical side of mathematics through a program designed in part by Wayne State University researchers.
Mathematics Instruction Using Decision Science and Engineering Tools, or MINDSET, is a new, innovative program designed to improve high school students’ aptitude and attitudes toward math. The program uses decision-making tools of industrial engineering and operations research to enhance students’ multistep math problem solving skills. MINDSET aims to increase student success in transitioning into college math and engineering classes or entry-level employment. It also aims to make math more appealing to women and minorities.
The program is funded by a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to North Carolina State University, Wayne State University and University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Kenneth Chelst, professor of industrial and systems engineering in WSU’s College of Engineering and Thomas Edwards, professor of teacher education in WSU’s College of Education, wrote the core of the MINDSET curriculum.
“The title of MINDSET’s textbook is When Will We Ever Use This? because it’s the number one question kids have in their math classes,” Chelst said. “When the connection between the classroom and real life isn’t made, many are turned off to the subject altogether.”
The curriculum presents concepts such as linear programming and Multiattribute Utility Theory as tools for deterministic modeling in decision-making. Students also learn probabilistic thinking, which are concepts needed for making decisions in the presence of uncertainty. Example situations include waiting in lines, worker absenteeism and purchasing collision insurance. MINDSET introduces students to Microsoft Excel early in the curriculum, enabling students to solve large problems in a realistic timeframe. It also introduces the idea that not every problem has a single correct answer, but rather an initial solution that requires interpretation and exploration.
An additional benefit to the MINDSET curriculum is that it particularly appeals to women and minorities. Data compiled by the American Society of Engineering Education shows that industrial engineering departments enroll significantly more women students and students from historically underrepresented groups than all other areas of engineering.
“By teaching these types of tools in a high school course, MINDSET aims to capture the interest of women and other underrepresented groups at an early age, and show them how they can make a difference through mathematics and science development,” Chelst said.
About 500 students and 10 teachers in Michigan are piloting MINDSET as a fourth-year mathematics curriculum in the 2010-11 school year. These include high schools in Detroit, Southfield, St. Clair Shores, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Birmingham. Outcomes will be measured during the grant’s final year using questions from the Programme for International Student Assessment scores and new materials developed at Wayne State that measure changes in student attitudes toward math.
Angela Principato, math teacher at South Lake High School in St. Clair Shores, was the first teacher in the country to pilot the MINDSET full curriculum during the 2009-10 school year. Principato, who also assisted in writing the curriculum, said the project was well-received.
“Students were particularly wowed by the number of real-life problems that can be tackled with Microsoft Excel, which is much more relevant than solving 30 nearly identical problems using a graphing calculator,” Principato said. “Real problems they have to reason their way through — that is a life skill they will never stop using.”
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