Dr. Mary Armon, associate professor of mathematics at Knox College, sits amongst skeletons of geometric solids during a summer teachers workshop on math and chemistry at Knox Thursday morning.

Common denominators

Teachers explore mathematics' link to chemistry

Saturday, June 23, 2007

What does math have to do with chemistry?

Any high school teacher can tell you - or anyone who's taken a chemistry class lately - a lot. And 17 high school math and chemistry teachers attended a workshop at Knox College this week to discuss that very question.

"Not many workshops are interdisciplinary," said Diana Cermak, assistant professor of chemistry at Knox and co-leader of the teacher's workshop. "This gives teachers a chance to get together to talk about issues both subjects face."

The workshop was funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Knox was awarded the grant in 2004, and has used the money the past two years for a summer science camp for junior high girls. Cermak, who's leading the workshop with Associate Professor of Mathematics Mary Armon, said the college plans to have another teacher's workshop next year, possibly in biology and physics.

The aim of this year's workshop is for teachers to discuss how math and chemistry can be taught together. To do that, the teachers are focusing on one concept that is used by both disciplines - geometry. Through grant money Knox provided teachers with Zome kits, 3-D models used in classrooms that will allow students to incorporate abstract reasoning through tactile and visual learning, that they can take back to their schools.

Faye Schulz, a math teacher at Galesburg High School, said the Zome kits would help her students understand basic concepts.

"There are fewer tinker toys then there used to be," Schulz said. "I think probably my generation and the generation before me were more hands on. Now, kids have a flat screen in front of them most of the time, and that doesn't help with visualization."

During the five-day workshop, the educators have done activities to give them ideas for their own classrooms. For example, Wednesday they made soaps using different kids of oils, allowing them to work with chemical properties and talk about how they related to geometric structures.

Each day the teachers did a different activity and then had group discussions.

"We're trying to help students be more prepared in one classroom for the other," said Lorna Blackford, a math teacher at Monmouth-Roseville High School.

Blackford said discussions have included chemistry teachers telling the math teachers what they'd like students to know to be prepared for their classes.

"High school students believe subjects are learned by themselves," Blackford said. "They don't understand the overlap. But math is the language of most sciences.

"We want to come up with ways to help kids realize these things are integrated."

By the end of the week, teachers hoped to have several new activities for this fall that would allow them to incorporate math and chemistry concepts. It was a good opportunity for teachers from different subjects and schools to learn things from each other.

"It was good to share with each other our ideas, frustrations and our successes," Schulz said. "As a teacher, you're in one school and there's not a lot of opportunity to share with teacher in other schools or disciplines. It's always exciting to hear what others have tried that has worked or what they're not so thrilled with."

The goal is for students to understand how math and chemistry complement each other.

"Often students ask, 'What am I going to use this for?' " Schulz said. "Certainly there are a lot of applications for geometry in construction in design that I often talk about. I hadn't thought about the ones in the sciences, at least not in chemistry.

"Now when students say 'when can I use this,' I can say with greater assurance these concepts will be carried through the sciences."


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