Think math is uninteresting? Try using it to answer fundamental problems that provoke interest and wonderment, such as calculating the distance to the moon.
"It is a beautiful problem with an eloquent solution," said Scott Baldridge, Louisiana State University research mathematician and professor.
Calculating the moon's distance is an example of the kind of enticing, real-world math problems embedded in the PreK-12 Eureka Math curriculum, which lead writer Baldridge spent the last two and a half years developing with a team of other teachers for Great Minds, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit and creator of curricula and curricula tools.
Presented with the moon question, Eureka students would use modeling or mathematical pictures -- Eureka uses a short list of such flexible models throughout its 14 grades -- to bridge the gap between the word problem and the abstract operations needed for the right answer. "Familiarity with a few powerful models breeds comfort in learning mathematics," he said.
Like the Common Core state standards, the Web-based curriculum brings students' attention to the processes involved in math in order to develop conceptual understanding. But in developing that knowledge, students also learn the importance of the right answer too, Baldridge said.
Eureka Math itself, he said, is an answer to the issue of delivering STEM education in primary and secondary grades where there has been a lack of excitement in math curricula.
Although the K-9 portion of Eureka Math became available last school year, school districts in a handful of states are already using Eureka Math by name, and about 3 million unknown entities have downloaded the curriculum for free from EngageNY -- the local name for the Eureka Math that serves the New York State Education Department, one of the curriculum's first piloters.
While showing multiple ways to get to one right answer is a hallmark of Eureka Math, the new PreK-12 curriculum developed a specific criteria for doing so, according to Scott Baldridge,
The criteria: showing multiple solutions when it's important mathematically to show them or when it's important for teachers to empower students with the knowledge that they can solve problems using multiple approaches, Baldridge said.
One example that meets the first criterion: 25 times 36. A student can do the equation column style, or solve it like this: take 36 and break it down to 4 times 9. Then, turn to 25 and multiply it by the 4, which equals 100, and then by the 9, which equals 900, or the correct answer.
Beyond just being "cool," Baldridge said, "The second way is valuable because it highlights one of the most important properties of algebra, that is, associative property."
"Oftentimes we find ourselves meeting schools and districts that are using our curriculum and we didn't even know up until that moment because they had downloaded it off of Engage New York," said Jill Diniz, Eureka Math program director for Great Minds.
Originally, Lynne Munson, executive director of Great Minds, reached out to Baldridge at LSU and the two created a vision for the curriculum at around the time New York had issued an RFP; the state department of education awarded Great Minds, then Common Core Inc., its entire K-12 math curriculum.
During the 2013-14 school year, New York and five pilot districts in Louisiana were the first to use the curriculum. Then this school year, the curriculum saw an expansion of its use: 80 percent of Louisiana districts use it, as do districts across the country in such states as California, Washington, Illinois and Tennessee, and even internationally in Egypt.
The Great Minds site offers some 45,000 pages of free PDF downloads of everything needed to get started using the curriculum, including sequenced lessons or modules, professional development and assessments, as well as fee-based subscription access for more on-demand professional development and a global view of the curriculum.
"Every module starts with a content or a narrative about how this module relates to things they were just doing in the last module, things they were doing last year and things coming up," Diniz said.
She said the modules also contain examples throughout of how students and teachers might interact, though it's not a script. "So even if you're just working off the free PDF, you get a picture of how this will look in action in the classroom."
Then last summer, in addition to offering fee-based live and synchronous video trainings, Great Minds began posting pre-recorded instructional videos on its site. And this year, it finished the entire video series of 18-plus hours of insight into each grade level from the curriculum's writers.
All this underlies a culture of professional development, promoted throughout the curriculum materials, grounding instructors new to the different approach.
Recently Eureka Math was the only curriculum of 20 reviewed by EdReports.org -- a new nonprofit created as a "Consumer Reports for school materials" -- that met its criteria for being properly aligned in all K-8 assessed grades with the Common Core state standards, and met its usability standard in those grades too. Eureka also meets the new federal college- and career-ready standards, Diniz said.
Part of what sets Eureka Math apart from other curricula is it was written by one lead writer -- Baldridge -- and a team of about 100-plus practitioner teacher-writers. Thus, it is coherent in nature and calls teachers to understand its progression to support students in foundational learning and also know what's coming up.
"That level of consistency and the intention to weaving what was learned in previous grades back into the narrative of the overall storyline," Baldridge said, "creates a learning environment quite different and exciting than anything teachers have experienced before."
Articles by The Modesto Bee of California and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans have noted that many students and teachers are liking the rigor and engaging style of Eureka Math. Others, however, are finding the transition challenging or rushed, with some saying Eureka's math is pushing too much too soon. A couple of Louisiana districts have also opted out of the curriculum.
Responding to this, Baldridge said it is easy for adults to see the curriculum as too difficult because they themselves did not learn math this way, but that with time, he thinks such criticisms will disappear.
To be sure, the curriculum is challenging -- it is normed to what students in higher achieving counties are learning -- but it was also created with input from veteran U.S. teachers with expertise in each grade level, he said.
This fall, Great Minds plans to bundle its Web app and video subscription into one fee -- Diniz said it will be less than $200 per teacher per year -- and is expanding its video collection to shorter demonstrations and more classroom footage embedded throughout the lessons. Also, the entire PreK-12 curriculum will be available for use in the 2015-16 school year.
Not stopping there, Diniz said Great Minds is creating new ways to use technology to give teachers tools to gather information on students' prior knowledge. This way they can tailor lessons and differentiate instruction. Great Minds also is piloting parent resources for supporting student progress.
Great Minds also plans to concentrate on coherence not only across grades for math, but also across subjects, possibly branching out into economics and computer science applications, in addition to existing curricula tools developed for English and history.
And there will be more new developments -- many of Eureka's writers are going on listening tours, discussing the curriculum with teachers who are using it, to keep improving the "living" Web-based curriculum.