Rutgers-led group lands $2.55 million to advance high school biology and math

National Science Foundation grant to support instructional materials

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $2.55 million grant to Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and two partner institutions to advance high school instruction of biology and mathematics by emphasizing the mathematical methods that underlie modern biology.

The five-year grant, led by Rutgers, includes the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications (COMAP) and Colorado State University. The project aims to close a gap between math and biology instruction in high school courses by creating materials that address mathematical principles of gene mapping, population trends, public health and the spread of diseases, including contemporary threats such as bird flu and bioterrorism.

"Modern biology is increasingly an information science, closely tied to the tools and methods of mathematics," said Fred Roberts, principal investigator on the grant and director of the university's Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science (DIMACS). "Traditionally, however, students who liked biology may have thought math was irrelevant or too difficult. We need to teach it in a way that engages aspiring biologists."

Roberts, also a professor of mathematics, added that by bringing more biology into the mathematics classroom, the project team expects to get students more excited about the usefulness of mathematics. He noted that DIMACS is a good place to start addressing this need, as it has been a leader in improving math and science education in the elementary, middle and high school grades for years.

The NSF grant will fund development of instructional modules that can be used in high school biology and mathematics courses without having to change the curriculum. Teams of teachers, writers and content experts will prepare modules, train teachers to field-test the materials and evaluate the results.

The modules will focus on three major themes:

  • computational molecular biology, including human genome sequencing

  • epidemiology modeling the spread of a disease and the vaccination and quarantine protocols needed to combat it, and

  • ecology and population biology.

"In far too many high schools today, math and biology might as well be in different worlds," said Midge Cozzens, consultant on the grant and associate director of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, a private foundation that promotes quality math and science teaching in high schools. "Not only do aspiring biologists need solid math grounding, but mathematics students need to see the breadth of applications and career opportunities available to them."

Cozzens and Roberts last year organized the first DIMACS conference on linking mathematics and biology in high schools, bringing together 100 high school teachers, administrators, university researchers and students to explore how to strengthen instruction, develop needed materials and overcome obstacles to introducing interdisciplinary topics. In addition, they have been working with seed grants over the past three summers, including a $100,000 academic excellence award from Rutgers, to support small groups of teachers who wrote instructional materials for mathematics and biology and tested them in their schools during the following academic years.

"This effort fits squarely into our mission to produce educational materials that showcase interesting and contemporary applications of math," said Sol Garfunkel, co-principal investigator and founder and executive director of COMAP, a nonprofit mathematics curriculum development group. "The modular approach to instructional materials will make bite-sized pieces available to teachers and schools so they can introduce new concepts quickly without having to scrap their existing lessons and textbooks."

An important component of the project will be evaluation of the materials. The team will look at student performance and measure how their attitudes change toward biology and mathematics. Brian Cobb, a professor at Colorado State University, will be the lead evaluator on the project.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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