Commanding the attention of a room full of pre-teens is a difficult feat. Engaging them in good discussion about math concepts is even harder.

Middle school math teachers are faced with the unenviable task of pulling a generation of plugged-in tweens’ minds away from their text messages and into their textbooks.

The University of Richmond is arming area educators with new tactics to liven up their lesson plans during a three-week-long course that encourages the incorporation of science concepts in the math classroom.

The course is offered at no cost to local middle school teachers and is funded through a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

“One of the goals of HHMI is to foster connections across disciplines,” said math professor, Chip Hoke, who co-instructs the course. “This program was created to promote the mutual utility of math and the sciences for one another.”

Seventeen middle school math and science teachers were selected to participate in the program’s inaugural run this summer.

For the first two weeks, the group gathered in the lab of a different University of Richmond faculty member every morning to participate in a science demonstration that incorporated math.

Participants then spent the afternoon discussing how to better develop the math components and their practical applications in the classroom.

During the final week of the program, participants split into teams and developed instructional resources for each activity.

“I am always looking for ways to expand my skills and incorporate cross-curricular activities in my teaching,” said Melanie Savage, a math teacher at Chickahominy Middle School in Hanover County. “Kids want to know the ‘why’ behind the math, and being able to teach math and science together is truly engaging for middle school students.”

Biology professor Malcolm Hill was one of the faculty members who spent a morning presenting to the middle school teachers.

His activity, which he called ‘the crab game,’ illustrates the damaging effect pollution has had on the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population. Students attempt to navigate a marble (the “crab”) around various obstacles representing pollution.

The math component comes in when students are asked to calculate percentages of population decrease.

“I’ve personally taken this game into elementary and middle school classrooms,” Hill told the group the morning of his presentation. “The science students really got excited about it. I imagine the same thing can happen with your math students.”

The middle school teachers had the opportunity to run through the activity with Hill and ask him questions about his research in the Chesapeake Bay and the Florida Keys.

“The science professors have given us excellent background material to increase our understanding of each lesson,” said Kathy Vaughan, another program participant. “We can then teach the math and feel confident about the science aspect.”

“I have so enjoyed the guest speakers,” Savage added. “Before the daily activities, we’re blessed with this wealth of information coming from world-class experts.”

And as much as the middle school teachers have enjoyed working with the professors, Chip Hoke says faculty have been just as eager to work with them.

“We really want to connect the sciences at the University of Richmond with the classrooms in the community. Our professors want them to know they’re here as a resource.”

Participants will return for follow-up sessions in the winter and spring to discuss the successes and challenges they’ve had implementing the new activities in their classes. Hoke, along with co-instructor and education professor Tricia Stohr-Hunt, will take the participants’ feedback and incorporate it into next summer’s course.

By establishing an annual teacher retreat, Hoke hopes that Richmond is able to support a future generation of science scholars.

“We chose middle school because it’s the place where students seem to really get turned off or on to math or science or both. You don’t want to lose the interrelation and beauty of that support of math for science and science for math.”