Start Small, Think Big: Making a Difference Through K-12 Mathematics Outreach

By Kathleen Fowler, Professor of Mathematics, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Clarkson University

Since starting my career as a faculty member in 2003, I jumped right in to K-12 Outreach and have never looked back. I was motivated by my strong connection to my community, which is located in St. Lawrence County, a geographically isolated, rural part of upstate New York. All K-12 districts in this county share the same problems of limited resources, significant poverty rates, and a “high needs” population. My choice to become involved in K-12 Outreach was a personal one. I had a very nonlinear path to becoming a mathematician. I was raised by a single mom who sold cars and told me I could do anything I wanted to if I hunkered down and worked hard. I went to three different colleges, changed majors three times, and took five years to get my undergraduate degree—waitressing for the last three years to support myself. I only had one female math teacher in 8th grade and one female math professor—but not until graduate school. My point is, I didn’t have many female STEM role models, but honestly not much of this occurred to me until I started to get involved in K-12 Outreach. However, I quickly understood that these experiences are not the norm and that not every child has an encouraging support system to motivate them. Even for students who do have strong family support, a lack of opportunities for resume building activities or enrichment such as Robotics or Science Olympiad or even an AP Physics class means they are not even competitive when they apply to colleges. I am raising two daughters in this community—they and their peers deserve the same opportunities as students in affluent suburbs scattered across “downstate” New York and elsewhere.

Feedback I’ve received from faculty from a variety of Universities that do K-12 Outreach imply that a common thread is a feeling of wanting to “give back” or to honor a K-12 teacher that made a difference in their lives. The bottom line is that this sort of service to the broader community is a win-win situation. In times of major budget cuts in education, new curriculum and assessments, exhausted teachers, overworked parents, and a new generation of students who need STEM problem solving skills more than ever, it feels great to help out in any possible way. In this article, I’ll describe what K-12 Outreach is and share examples about how mathematics faculty can get involved on a variety of levels. My hope is that, as mathematicians, we can share our expertise with and also learn from the K-12 community to strengthen STEM education through collaboration.

I consider K-12 Outreach to be a partnership with local school districts to improve education, to provide unique learning experiences for everyone involved, and to work collaboratively towards building a future generation of problem solvers. Although this is a broad definition, it allows for a wide range of activities that can help achieve those objectives. The key component for K-12 Outreach is the partnership, making genuine connections with superintendents, teachers, principals and students. Approaching the partnership with an understanding that each person has a critical expertise can make a K-12 program a success. I have had some efforts succeed and some that were epic fails, and both relied on trust and appreciation of all the people involved.

The first thing I always do when forming a new partnership is admit that I am by no means an expert (or even qualified) at teaching school-aged children. I rely on teachers to help me understand the appropriate level of material, identify challenging topics that could use more relevance and motivation, and to communicate in a language students can grasp. I remember leading a session about drawing a scaled roller coaster blue print to a group of 7th and 8th graders at our summer camp one year and thinking it was going well. Then I was met with blank stares and nobody knew how to get started. Luckily there was an 8th grade teacher in the room who reworded all my directions for them and they immediately got to work.

Likewise, teachers often do not have the resources or time to learn about how mathematics is being used to solve real world problems. Math modeling, open-ended questions, and interdisciplinary problems within the mathematics classroom are rare, yet emerging, scenarios in K-12 schools. From my experiences, teachers need to be able to trust and feel comfortable asking questions with faculty. When running teacher professional development workshops, I usually have undergraduate and graduate student helpers. They make the setting more comfortable and bridge the gap in terms of technical expertise. In general, I found that using college students can strengthen any level of K-12 Outreach. They usually have great energy and insight and are closer in age to the students we are serving. Participating also is a way to strengthen their resumes and instill an understanding in future mathematicians that K-12 Outreach is valuable.

I have piloted some small-scale efforts as well as participated in both state and federally funded student driven and teacher professional development programs. One effort simply involved organizing an essay contest for local middle school students to celebrate Math Awareness Month (April). Our math club spearheaded the whole thing. We got local businesses to donate prizes (camping equipment, gift certificate to a music shop, sporting equipment) and then students had to relate their essay to how mathematics is used in that arena (for example, why is mathematics important if you are planning a camping trip or how is mathematics used in baseball?) All we really had to do was circulate an announcement to superintendents and then enjoy reading the essays and choosing winners.

There are a variety of pre-existing national STEM programs that provide ways for faculty to make connections with K-12 teachers and students. MATHCOUNTS is a middle school competition that I have been the local director of for the last 11 years. We provide the facilities to hold the annual competition and Clarkson Student volunteers have even worked with teachers throughout the school year to coach teams. In the past, we have also provided one-day workshops for teachers to help them develop coaching activities.

Another opportunity that requires no funding (and actually provides an honorarium!) is to become a judge (or problem author) for the SIAM (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics) Moody’s Mega Math (M3) Challenge. The M3 Challenge is a free mathematical modeling competition for high school juniors and seniors held annually in March. Judges have a week to read through roughly forty solution papers online and score them based on a given rubric. See for more information.

A much more ambitious program is our NYSED STEP (Science Technology Entry Program) after-school and summer camp program, called IMPETUS for Career Success (Integrated Math and Physics for Entry to Undergraduate STEM). This program connects Clarkson faculty and graduate/undergraduate students with 11 school districts and 150+ 7-12 grade students. Highlights are a week-long Summer Roller Coaster Engineering Camp, weekly after-school STEM enrichment activities which include research projects, a model roller coaster design competition, tutoring and mentoring services, and monthly on-campus STEM workshops centered around research and STEM careers, providing a variety of STEM experiences. At camp, students apply math, physics, and simulation with hands-on lab activities. Students predict the behavior of a roller coaster traveling along a wall-mounted track whose shape can be adjusted to accommodate multiple hills, loops, and jumps. Activities include designing a roller coaster from a scaled drawing and wire model that undergoes a complete energy and safety analysis and is simulated via software so students experience their ride virtually and cross-check their velocity and acceleration computations. We also use the VR2002 Virtual Roller Coaster to teach students about accelerations, model predictions, and data analysis. Students visit a Six Flags to collect acceleration data wearing kinematic vest. The highlight is a workshop with a roller coaster engineer who built The Comet. To see more about the scope of this program, see

Getting started in K-12 outreach activities seems intimidating but the pay-off is huge. A simple web search will reveal numerous programs, examples, curriculum samples, and funding opportunities that may seem overwhelming. The most important step is getting started and then to keep trying and learning. For my roller coaster camp program, we were denied funding twice before finally being awarded a NYSED grant. Seeing the evolution from the birth of the idea to where we are now is one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. Better yet is seeing what our graduating seniors go on to do. We are in our tenth year and the program is continuously changing and improving. My advice is to start small but think big.

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