Off-road and off the charts: rural math project completed

5/29/2008 - By: Sue Putnam

Teruni Lamberg is a campaign manager’s dream. She recently turned 40, has a beautiful son and handsome husband, a postdoctorate from Vanderbilt University, a talent for oil painting, and she’s logged more than 18,000 miles through the landscape of rural Nevada.

The only thing is she’s not running for office. Through her work at the University, Lamberg just wrapped up an adventure she started three years ago called the Northeastern Nevada Math Project (NNMP).

“This project has been a labor of love from all levels,” the assistant professor of elementary mathematics education said. “I am grateful for the dedicated teachers in Nevada who committed three years of their life to making a difference in the lives of their students.”

NNMP was a partnership funded through the Nevada Department of Education as well as a joint collaboration between the College of Education and the College of Science. Involving teachers in 22 schools in five school districts, the program’s focus was on research-based, professional development of math teachers in the Elko, Humboldt, White Pine, Lander and Eureka districts.

“Teaching really is hard,” Lamberg said. “There are lots of things coming at you at once and it can be hard to focus. So we’ve studied how kids learn math, and that helps us learn how to teach it better. And when teachers can take ideas and share them with other teachers, that helps our professional development, and when the project ends, the learning doesn’t stop.”

Lamberg said her bottom line in directing the project was to improve student math skills by supporting teachers. The teachers took courses in number and operations, fractions and geometry and math pedagogy. The courses emphasized how to effectively teach math content so that it makes the highest impact on how students learn and understand the topic. Teachers read the latest research, learned innovative teaching techniques and explored ideas on how children think and learn math in their classrooms.

“We also invited Dr. Julia Anghilieri from Cambridge University and other scholars to contribute their expertise to this project to form a learning community,” Lamberg said. “NNMP was designed as a research project, so we collected extensive data which revealed the teachers’ content knowledge increased and also changed the way they taught math. And we gave students a math test prior to the project and then one when it was completed. The increase in scores indicates that student learning was positively impacted.”

But this project and math in general weren’t always so clear to the assistant professor. Her mother owned a Montessori school and Lamberg always knew she wanted to teach. After she got her undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin, she taught a poetry class.

“It was a disaster,” Lamberg said. “After that, I decided I was better at teaching math.”

After three years teaching at Vanderbilt, Lamberg decided to come to Nevada. She was intrigued by the research she might be able to do throughout the vast, rural areas of the state. With her now five-year-old son in tow, Lamberg loaded up a van full of lesson plans and video equipment and took her first trip to Ely, Elko and Winnemucca in 2005.

Lamberg’s son was in diapers when they started, but she met the challenge of keeping a toddler occupied during hours and hours of travel.

“When he’d get restless, we’d count the bugs on the windshield or estimate miles to the next bend in the road,” she said. “He got to be good friends with the gas station attendant in Austin (Nevada), too.”

Lamberg believes the project helped develop a group of teachers with knowledge, enthusiasm and expertise in math that can be a resource for their districts, schools and the state. Several of these teachers have taken on math leadership positions in their schools and school districts. Two teachers are Presidential math award nominees, two other participants have been hired by the Northeastern Nevada Regional Professional Development Program, and one is a full-time math coach in the Lander County school district.

“Not only was the professional development research based, but the work has informed Teruni’s research program,” said Bill Sparkman, College of Education dean. “I had the opportunity to sit at a roundtable discussion of a group of teachers from the participating schools who were reflecting on their learning and experiences in the program. I was struck with their insights into their professional growth and the way they described how their teaching had been enhanced.”

Teachers who completed the three-year project received 18 hours of graduate credit in math content and math education. These teachers are eligible to receive a math endorsement from the Nevada Department of Education. Several have continued on to get a master’s degree from the college’s Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning.

Said a smiling Lamberg, “My role is to support northern Nevada and pay it forward. This project is an excellent example of a community coming together to improve math instruction. We have established communication between different partners that influence math education. This will help us build capacity to improve math instruction long term in this state.”

Project team members also included Chaitan Gupta from the College of Science, Bob Quinn of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning, Dave Brancamp from the Nevada Department of Education, and Sharon McLean and Gini Cunningham from the Northeastern Nevada Professional Development Program. The school districts contributed funding by providing substitutes and release time for teachers to attend the sessions during the school year.

And while Lamberg may be off the road for a while, she’s already working on analyzing the data from the project so the lessons learned will be available for other teachers. Then she plans to work with the Washoe County School District to design a similar project that will have a kindergarten to sixth-grade focus. Other school districts have also expressed interest. When asked how many students she thinks benefitted from NNMP, she grabbed a calculator.

“Nearly 1,000,” she said. “And it’s the love for the kids that helps us. Good teachers are lifelong learners, and I’m so happy we’re working together to make a difference.”


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