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Posted May 24, 2011

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Horizon Grant Takes the Drudgery Out of Pre-Calculus

AHA Students Using High-Tech Calculators to Help Grasp Concepts

To the uninitiated, everything about pre-calculus virtually screams “difficult!”

First, there are the formulas, which might not be rocket science -- but aren’t a bad facsimile.

Then, there’s the verbiage: parabola, derivative, function.

And finally, there’s the end goal – a move out of pre-calculus and into calculus, where the work is only more challenging.

But in the gloaming – but not gloom – of a dimly lighted classroom at Atrisco Heritage Academy High School, 17 pre-calc students are being transformed. Thanks to a $5,000 grant from the APS Education Foundation’s Horizon Awards campaign, advancing through mathematics isn’t a march of drudgery. In fact, it’s sort of enjoyable. Maybe even really enjoyable.

Through a proposal written by APS math coach Ronda Davis, Atrisco Heritage teachers are using graphing calculators made by Texas Instruments. In a nutshell, the wireless device allows students to show their work on Promethean electronic whiteboards as they are doing it.

In all, 70 students are using the devices this spring.

The benefits? Students can grasp concepts from one another as well as their instructors, and instructors can see who’s absorbing the lesson – and who isn’t – without having to wait for test results to come in. It’s real-time, immediate teaching and learning.

“It allows kids to learn from one another – and have fun,” says Davis.

Atrisco Heritage teachers Rosemary Harding and Jessica Esquibel are leading their students through a series of equations during a 98-minute period. Only one student seems to struggle – the rest are engaged, eager, responsive. When Harding creates a problem that reads f3(x) = and adds instructions like “You make the whole function negative,” she gets instant response.

Not every one of these students is a math whiz. And not everyone will go on to calculus, considered a key building block for college preparation. Yet, the technology – plus the work of Harding and Esquibel – have made a difference for many. They’ve made math more accessible – and passing more challenging courses like calculus and Advanced Placement calculus – a realistic option.

“Sometimes you learn from other people’s mistakes,” says junior Samuel Veleta, assessing the graphing calculators’ impact, “and sometimes, you can learn on your own.”

Davis says it’s too early to know the full impact of the graphic calculators’ presence at Atrisco Heritage – they arrived in February – but believes the potential is too great to ignore. More students will receive the devices next year, and she plans to write another Horizon Awards proposal.

Asked how Harding and Esquibel would’ve assessed their students without the graphing calculators, Davis holds a small, laminated whiteboard. Each student would’ve written equations  and graphed problems on these 20th century devices.

“What these kids now,” she says, “allows us to teach immediately.”

The Horizon Awards funded more than $70,000 in proposals this year and reached about 5,000 students. Key contributors to the effort included PNM, Intel, Sandia National Labs/Lockheed Martin, Wells Fargo and the APS/United Way Employee Campaign.

For more information on the Foundation and the Horizon Awards, go to www.apseducationfoundation.org. Grant proposals are being accepted for the 2011-12 school year.

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