What Math Class Could Look Like – When Teacher Teams Collaborate with NASA Scientists

Posted by on October 22, 2012 in Featured, Learning Studios | 0 comments

Math class has new significance when students apply concepts of proportion and scale in the field.

How many 6th graders get to create maps with a NASA scientist? Students at Patuxent Valley Middle School in Howard County, Maryland had that opportunity last week as a part of Learning Studios. Students and teachers will spend the year investigating “How does our school impact the environment?” across their classrooms in partnership with NASA and NCTAF. In their second year as a Learning Studio, teachers reflected that the most significant changes from last year are an increased level of collaboration between their team members and, through their efforts, a greater awareness in the entire school community about their efforts in STEM.

Dr. Brown de Colstoun describes the development of satellite mapping technology and the relevance of math in his every day work at NASA.

Moving beyond the “guest lecture” format that traditionally defines the partnership between scientists and schools, NASA scientist Dr. Eric Brown de Colstoun collaborated with the Patuxent Valley Learning Studio to craft a series of investigations that would use the school’s environmental impact to bring mapping to life. During a NCTAF-led Design Session a few weeks earlier, teachers shared their curriculum and standards with the Dr. de Colstoun who helped translate his research and expertise into authentic learning opportunities for the students.  The Patuxent Valley Learning Studio was also assisted by Izolda Trakhenberg, a NASA Educational Specialist, who is a facilitator with the GLOBE program, which served as a the basis for the  inquiry-based investigations of the environment.

Armed with measuring tapes and flags, students worked in teams to subdivided a 30 m x 30 m area into 5 m x 5 m squares. The type of ground cover was documented within each square. Students applied math concepts of proportion, scale, and measurement; they also called on scientific field research protocols as well as vocabulary from geography class. One student remarked, “we made maps in geography class once, but never in math class before. It’s good to get the proportions right this time.”

With differentiated roles in their teams, students collaborated to collect accurate data.

In an upcoming class period the math students will examine the data collected by students in other math sections to determine the accuracy of their data collection. Students in science class will also use the maps to track changes in ground cover when they collect data on the growth rates of newly planted trees on the property.

Students raised the idea of advocating to their school leaders that any expansion of the school should be designed vertically instead of sprawling horizontally across more land, noting that they could apply their math skills to calculate the area of land impacted by changes in school design.

At the end of the class period a student reflected: “I like going outside and actually experiencing the math, and using math and science together.”


To learn how another team of teachers in Howard County implements STEM Learning Studios, read about integrating trigonometry, earth science, technology education, and web design at Hammond High School.


Curious what other Learning Studios are working on? Read about teacher collaboration in Anne Arundel CountyBaltimore CountyPrince George’s County, and the State of New Hampshire.


Laura Coscarelli, Program Manager, facilitates professional development and teacher collaboration for STEM Learning Studios. Laura also manages the NCTAF Learning Studios’ online communities and contributes to outreach and social media efforts.

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