NSF gives Pitt funds for math program

By ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON

It is the one thing high school math teachers dread most: the infamous question from… It is the one thing high school math teachers dread most: the infamous question from students, “Will any of this ever be useful?”

Pitt School of Education Professor Margaret Smith intends to help teachers answer this question and, eventually, erase it.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded Smith a grant of $2,101,270 to fund Pitt’s Cases of Reasoning and Proving in Secondary Mathematics, or CORP, program.

“The basic idea of CORP is to find ways to help teachers strengthen their own knowledge of the subject and understand how students understand math,” Alan Lesgold, dean of Pitt’s School of Education, said.

Students today learn the fundamentals of the subject, but they lack the ability to use math in practical ways. This is the problem that Smith and her team aim to solve.

“The best teachers are the ones that prepare students for a society in which the roles are constantly changing and in which people must use knowledge to adapt,” Lesgold said.

The project will provide teachers with opportunities to develop their own reasoning and proving skills and to learn methods for encouraging students to engage in these critical mathematical processes, Smith, the co-principal investigator of CORP, explained.

The monetary award is a continuing grant. The program will receive an initial payment of $799,242 to fund the next two years of CORP research.

Depending on the scientific progress of the project during the first two years, the NSF plans to disburse the rest of the funds evenly over the following three years.

The NSF funds approximately 20 percent of all federally supported research conducted by America’s colleges and universities.

Lesgold made a reference to an essay written in 1929 by Alfred Whitehead, a British mathematician, logician and philosopher. In the essay, Whitehead criticizes Harvard students for not using their knowledge, thus allowing it to become inert.

“The purpose of Professor Smith’s project is to make knowledge useful and to keep it from becoming inert,” Lesgold said.

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