COMET • Vol. 11, No. 26 – 23 November 2010


STEM Teacher Wins MacArthur Award

Source: eGFI

Great teaching is its own reward. But, let’s face it, it’s wonderful when top teachers get a bit of recognition. Amir Abo-Shaeer, a California physics and engineering teacher, got more than just a bit of spotlight–he was one of the 23 MacArthur Fellows of 2010. The MacArthur Foundation annually gives out so-called Genius Awards–a no-strings grant of $500,000 each–to folks who excel in their professions.

Abo-Shaeer, 38, began teaching at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta nine years ago, after a few years of working as a mechanical engineer in the aerospace and telecommunications industries. A year later, he founded a school-within-a-school, the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, which is designed to get kids excited about science and math, and to consider careers in engineering. It relies upon a rigorous applied-science curriculum that features hands-on projects. The senior capstone course requires the students to build a robot for the FIRST Robotics Competition, and Abo-Shaeer’s teams have won several regional, national, and international trophies.

When he began the academy, only two of the 35 students were girls. So, he began doing outreach to area junior highs; now girls fill half of his classes. Abo-Shaeer says that despite the widely-held perception that kids aren’t interested in these subjects, he’s got a “line out the door” of students wanting in. The foundation says his academy transformed the culture of the school, and its students are highly regarded by their peers.

A book about Abo-Shaeer, The New Cool, by New York Times contributor Neal Bascomb is set for publication in March 2011.

“It’s an amazing thing,” Abo-Shaeer says about the award, adding that it will enable him to be creative in a field that doesn’t get much funding–or enough recognition, either.


Related Article:

Education Tips from a ‘Genius’

Source: eGFI News


Abo-Shaeer is not given to boasting, but he’s happy to explain how others can replicate some of his achievements. And, he says, his methods of recruiting, teaching, and engaging students are all things any STEM teacher could achieve, even those who are short on funding.

He wants to dispel the myth that engineering has to be cold and analytical. Next year, when he introduces the new curriculum he developed for the opening of the new 12,000-square-foot facility, it will be “heavily infused” with art in order to “encourage students who are more creative and artistic to consider engineering.”

Perhaps Abo-Shaeer’s most impressive feat has been raising the number of 9th grade girls in his engineering classes from around two per class to 50 percent.  He started by drawing upon some female students in higher grades to give talks about how, despite what society says, girls at Dos Pueblos could “buck the trend” and study engineering…

One way to begin the process is to prepare students for careers while they’re still in high school. Students work in the classroom, but also after school with Abo-Shaeer’s non-profit as though they are already in a business. They handle public relations, manage the budget, make presentations, run the website, and raise money, in addition to staying sometimes until midnight working on robots.

Abo-Shaeer says it’s essential that lessons be tied to what students will actually be doing, as they often wonder how abstract subjects can possibly be useful when they get out into the world. Equally as important is making sure that not everything taught can be just as easily found in a web search. Teachers must give more than that, he says, dubbing his approach “experience-based learning.” Hands-on activities and skill-learning are vital.

And teachers don’t have to be rolling in dough to accomplish any of this. “You can do a lot with a little bit of money,” Abo-Shaeer says, who encourages teachers to look to local businesses for extra cash. Chances are, companies will be especially interested in funding projects that relate to their specific industry field. Finally, the internet has many free class activities and lesson plans, he says, that don’t require a big school budget to accomplish.

As for the $500,000, to be paid out over five years? Abo-Shaeer has no idea what he’s going to do with it yet, but he doesn’t see a yacht or anything opulent in his future. He says the award’s true purpose–the “spirit” of it–is to enhance the creativity of the recipient, so he’ll likely find an innovative use for it.

More broadly, he hopes others get a sense from the award that “there are people out there that believe in public education,” and who don’t just focus on the negatives. He sees the award as “a clear opportunity for public educators,” and hopes to use it to help spread his ideas about engineering education and reaching students.


For more information about the MacArthur Fellows program, visit



California Teachers of the Year Include Mathematics and Science Teachers

Source: California Department of Education – 12 November 2010

On November 12, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell named five outstanding teachers as the 2011 California Teachers of the Year.

“Our California Teachers of the Year are amazing instructional leaders who have a great passion for helping students reach their full potential,” O’Connell said. “They each have unique ways of teaching and thinking that inspire their students to love learning. The Teachers of the Year inspire me, and I hope they inspire veteran teachers and encourage future teachers to follow their footsteps into the classroom.”

The 2011 California Teachers of the year are the following:

– Shannan Brown teaches fifth grade at Thomas Edison Elementary School, San Juan Unified School District, in Sacramento (Sacramento County).

– Darin Curtis teaches eighth grade physical education at Tierra del Sol Middle School, Lakeside Union School District, in Lakeside (San Diego County).

– Beverly Gonzalez teaches fourth grade mathematics and writing at Santa Fe School, Baldwin Park Unified School District, in Baldwin Park (Los Angeles County).

– Jennifer Kelly teaches eighth grade physical science at Middletown Middle School, Middletown Unified School District, in Middletown (Lake County).

– Kadhir Rajagopal teaches ninth through eleventh grade mathematics at Grant Union High School, Twin Rivers Unified School District, in Sacramento (Sacramento County).

One teacher is selected to serve as the state’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year Program. O’Connell chose Curtis to represent California in the national competition. The National Teacher of the Year winner will be selected next spring by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Candidates will be honored at a White House ceremony.

The competition is open to educators who teach prekindergarten through grade twelve. County offices of education nominate winners through their regional Teachers of the Year competitions. A state selection committee reviews candidates’ applications and conducts site visits to evaluate the teachers’ rapport with students, classroom environment, presentation skills, and teaching methods, among other criteria. The teachers are interviewed at the California Department of Education in Sacramento. The State Superintendent selects the five awardees.

The 2011 California Teachers of the Year will be honored at a special recognition event to be held in the spring.

For information on the California Teacher of the Year program, please visit


Results from the 2009 NAEP Grade 12 Assessments in Mathematics and Reading

Source: National Center for Education Statistics
URL (Report):

Last Thursday, Stuart Kerachsky, the
 Acting Commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, announced the results of the 2009 grade 12 reading and mathematics assessments from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Visit to read his comments, and visit for a summary of the mathematics results. The full report is available at

 An except of Commissioner Kerachsky’s comments follows below: 

 NAEP administered reading and mathematics assessments in 2009 to students across the country at grades 4, 8, and 12. Results for students in grades 4 and 8 were released earlier this year.

 The grade 12 results released today contain our first-ever grade 12 results at the state level.  There were 11 states that volunteered to participate in NAEP’s grade 12 pilot, which will examine the feasibility of using NAEP as a common yardstick to compare the performance of grade 12 students by state across the country.

 The assessments were administered early in 2009. A nationally representative sample of over 100,000 twelfth-graders participated in the reading and mathematics assessments…

 “As in reading, a new grade 12 mathematics framework was developed for the 2009 assessment. In mathematics, we can compare results in 2009 with those from 2005 only. Under the new assessment, grade 12 students were assessed in four mathematical content areas: number properties and operations; measurement and geometry; data analysis, statistics, and probability; and algebra. Average scores for mathematics are reported on a 0-300 scale.

 The average scale score at grade 12 for 2009 was 153. This was 3 points higher than in 2005.  When we look at achievement-level results for grade 12 mathematics, we see that the percentages at or above Basic and at or above Proficient both increased from 2005 to 2009. In both cases, the increase was about 3 percentage points…

 Scores increased overall and for all five major racial/ethnic groups from 2005 to 2009… 

 In 2009, the White-Black score gap was 30 points, while the White-Hispanic gap was 23 points, and the gap between White and American Indian/Alaska Native students was 17 points. None of these gaps changed significantly from 2005.  However, the gap between Asian/Pacific Islander and White students did change significantly, widening from 5 points in 2005 to 14 points in 2009 (161 for White students vs. 175 for Asian/Pacific Islander students).

 The gender gap did not change from 2005 to 2009. Male students scored 3 points higher than female students in both years. In contrast, the 2009 reading gap favored female students by 12 points.

 We asked students to tell us the highest level of mathematics course they had completed. About 42 percent of students said they had completed a course in algebra II or trigonometry. In addition, [another] 42 percent said they had taken a course in either pre-calculus or calculus…

 There is much more information on student performance, both nationally and at the state level in Grade 12 Reading and Mathematics: 2009 National and Pilot State Results ( ). In addition, the NAEP website,, has extensive information on the performance of students in each of the 11 participating states, access to released questions through NAEP’s Questions Center, as well as access to the NAEP Data Explorer, our online data-analysis tool (…



NSF Provides $1.3 Million Grant to Analyze U.S. Student Math Performance

Source: Indiana University

The Indiana University School of Education has received a $1.3 million grant for a three-year study analyzing past and present student performance in mathematics.

 “What Mathematics Do Students Know? Implications from NAEP for Curriculum and Policy” is a research project headed by Peter Kloosterman, the Martha Lea and Bill Armstrong Chair for Teacher Education and a professor of mathematics education at IU. Using data from the NAEP tests, the project will examine what U.S. students know now compared to the last three decades and how performance links to specific math curricula and courses students take in high school.

 “It really is just looking at how achievement has changed in mathematics over the last 30 years and how that relates to what has been taught–where we are doing better and what topics in math we still need to improve on,” Kloosterman said.

 The results of the grade 12 NAEP that were announced last week are from the “Main NAEP,” one of two types of NAEP exams Kloosterman’s project will examine. The other type is the “Long-Term-Trend NAEP,” which provides consistent questions administered to grade levels over a long period of time. (See for a comparison table of the two types of assessments.)

 The long-term test provides a nice baseline for determining historical student performance, Kloosterman said. “The same exact items were used on the test for years, so we can really see how performance of kids today compares to performance of kids back in the 70s,” he said.

 Importantly, the results of the most recent Main NAEP Assessment provide not just the latest snapshot of current knowledge but also begin to gauge more heavily-emphasized mathematics areas using new questions. “Many of the 12th grade items that were used up until a few years ago really covered middle school content,” Kloosterman said.

 The lack of updated items on the 12th-grade NAEP test may have depressed the performance results over time. “When you look at elementary and middle school students, they’re roughly a couple grade levels above where they were at elementary and middle school 20 years ago,” Kloosterman said. “That’s a big increase.”

 In contrast, there’s no such gain at the high school level, a fact that’s puzzled researchers. “Students now are taking more advanced high school mathematics courses than they were 20 years ago, but the test didn’t assess the content of those courses,” Kloosterman said. “So that’s probably part of the reason we don’t see as much gain.”

 Another aspect of the analysis will examine performance from state to state. While Kloosterman said differences in content standards from state to state make direct comparisons somewhat difficult, this project should uncover more detail about how well students are learning mathematics. “For example, one of the things we’ve noticed is Indiana students do a little better than the nation as a whole,” he said. “But when you look at the types of items that they do better on, elementary and middle school students in Indiana do better on the more rote, factual items. Indiana is equivalent to the nation as a whole on the more complex, problem-solving items.”

 [Indiana Daily Student]  The research will also focus on the connection between performance and specific books used in schools, Kloosterman said.

 “Overall, this should allow us, at least at the fourth grade level, to see if one book is better than another one,” he said. 

 Kloosterman said he is planning to write a book on what the National Assessment results mean for elementary, middle and high school levels. 

 “We do much better in mathematics in school than people give us credit for,” he said. “We want people to do even better, and I’m excited to be able to contribute to better math students in the United States. This will be one of many things that will help.”



Go Figure: There’s No Magic Formula to Great Art” by Ayako Suzuki

Source: The Asahi Shimbun – 8 November 2010


Algebra in its pure form can stump the best of minds. But try translating the formula z = x squared minus y squared into a three-dimensional image, and the result is art. That is precisely what a mathematician and a metal processing company set out to do by giving context to various equations.

The art forms, made from buffed, glimmering stainless steel plates, all represent mathematical formulas, for example, z = 1 minus the square root of x squared + y squared.

 The striking, almost mysterious pieces were born out of a collaboration between Hitoshi Izumori, a professor of mathematical education at Kanagawa University’s faculty of engineering, and Ohashi Engineering Co.

 Izumori was building mathematical models using paper, and Ohashi Engineering, based in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, drew on its own high-precision technology to bring his ideas to life.

 “I didn’t try to come up with something beautiful, but mathematical formulas have turned out to be beautiful when they are given shape,” Izumori said. “I hope people will realize that there is a lot of fun and joy in mathematics.”

 The 11 renditions come in a wide range of shapes, from a cone made of combined hyperbolas, to rippling waves of cosine curves and a metallic hemisphere.

 For example, dozens of stainless steel plates have been fitted together into a lattice pattern to produce the sweeping plane curves expressed by the formula z = x squared – y squared.

 The items received an overwhelming response from math enthusiasts and educators when they were displayed at an educational exhibition this summer.

 [Visit the Web site above to view two of the pieces of art.]


 Related Story:

Metal Factory Produces Mathematical Art





“Who Wants to Be a Mathematician?” National Contest

Source: American Mathematics Society
URL: and


In the American Mathematical Society (AMS) game, Who Wants to Be a Mathematician?, high school students compete for cash and prizes by answering multiple choice mathematics questions. The 2011 national contest will take place Friday, January 7 at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in New Orleans ( Nine contestants have been selected, based on their scores on a qualifying test. They include Evan O’Dorney from Venture School in San Ramon, CA, the 2010 champion. He also finished second in this summer’s International Mathematical Olympiad and came in first place in the National Spelling Bee in 2007.

 [From] Watching the game, and playing along, is a great activity for a math club or for individuals who want to match wits with the contestants. On this Web site are videos of recent games, which you can also see on the AMS channel on YouTube: