Discovery Files

The Root of a Good Math Teacher

Teachers are learning how to inspire the next generation of math geniuses in Washington, D.C.

Krystn Hodge walks into her Washington, D.C., classroom on a mission.

"By keeping kids in school, giving them a quality education and building their confidence, they will then go on to do great things," said Hodge.

Hodge is a teaching fellow in Math for America (MfA) DC, a program that selects college graduates with a natural love of teaching and mathematics and provides them with one year of education and advanced math training before placing them in high-needs schools for four years. The fellows are trained to teach and are placed in secondary school math classrooms.

Math for America has chapters across the United States, and with the help of the National Science Foundation and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a chapter is now open in Washington, D.C.

A partnership between American University and the Carnegie Institution for Science, MfA DC provides its fellows with mentorship and professional development throughout their early teaching years.

Math minds

The three brains behind MfA DC are Sarah Irvine Belson, Maxine Singer and John Nolan.

Irvine Belson, who is also the dean of education at American University, is excited by the program. "These teachers not only know their math, but they love teaching, and the students can only benefit from that," she said.

Fellows like Hodge use that love of math to inspire students. "The number one reason why I love math education is that I love math," Hodge said. "I feel as though many students are turned off of math at a young age and I am happy to be able to turn them back on to it."

Singer, president of MfA DC and president emerita of the Carnegie Institution,wants to make sure that students are receiving a quality education in the D.C. public schools system. During Singer's research career, she helped to decipher the genetic code and was awarded the National Medal of Science by former President George H. W. Bush.

"Because I am a scientist, I appreciate the importance of a good grounding of mathematics for any kind of technical or scientific job or education," said Singer. "MfA seems like a very fundamental way of trying to improve the education in D.C."

The pluses of math

Being in the classroom, Hodge is able to see the direct benefits of the program. "Most of [the fellows] work in impoverished neighborhoods that experience a cycle of failure," said Hodge. "By instilling skills and confidence in the students, hopefully they will graduate and make a difference in their community and in their lives."

And Hodge has already been able to see those changes. "At the end of the year when I looked at the students' test scores, I realized how far we had all come," Hodge said. "I also received letters from some students about how I made math come alive, and fun, for them. This really hit me and made everything worth it."

Having students understand fundamental and advanced math skills will help the United States increase its education rankings, Irvine Belson noted. "Students need to have the opportunity to engage in high-level mathematics so they can go on to college--so careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are options," Irvine Belson said. "We need a better and deeper understanding of mathematics at every grade in order to compete globally."

According to Singer, the continuation of the program is essential. Through private funding, the Carnegie Institution is able to accept a new group of fellows each year.

Irvine Belson agrees. The importance of having teachers commit to mathematics plus education can help the next generation go above and beyond. "We see teachers as the critical part of helping the economy," she said. "Teachers are the most important piece of the puzzle."

Added Hodge, "I love being able to make math accessible and engaging to students instead of intimidating and boring." Her work will hopefully help to build another generation of innovators.

-- Amy Fenton, National Science Foundation,

This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.