The project is designed for middle school students, but all of these pupils have long since finished their growth spurts. Those awkward years of early adolescence far behind them, they've finished college and begun their careers — as teachers.
This is the Faculty Academy for Mathematics Excellence, or FAME, at Foothill College's Krause Center for Innovation. The two-week professional development seminar was designed to expand participating teachers' instructional "toolbox" by showing them new methods for communicating difficult mathematical concepts to students, according to Liane Freeman, director of strategy and marketing for the Krause Center.
One of the educational tools FAME instructors are giving teachers is called "project-based learning." Through project-based learning students practice what they've learned not through worksheets and repetition, but through mock projects, like the space-station building exercise.
The FAME participants also learn about new educational technologies, which often come in the form of online tools.
Agnes Kaiser, a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher at Crittenden Middle School, went through the FAME program in the summer of 2010. The things she learned in the seminar have improved her teaching significantly, she said.
"I do a lot more student-led activities," Kaiser said, explaining how the project-based learning techniques she picked up in FAME have resulted in many of her students gaining a much deeper understanding of the curriculum. According to Kaiser, this teaching technique works better than simply asking kids to memorize a formula because the students can see how what they are learning will actually help them in the real world.
"They kind of self-propel themselves after that," Kaiser said, explaining that she coaches the students from the sidelines, but for the most part she gives them the freedom to solve a problem the way they see fit. In many cases, she just sits back and watches as students ask their peers for help. "It really becomes student-led."
Encouraging students to take the reigns and direct their own education is exactly what FAME instructors want to see the teachers in the program doing when they return to their classrooms at the end of the summer.
Cristina Bustamonte, an algebra teacher at Ocala Middle School in San Jose and FAME instructor, said that getting the students to come up with and solve their own problems is the best way to ensure that the children are engaged and learning in a deeper way.
Cecilio Dimas, another FAME instructor and math coordinator with the Santa Clara County Office of Education, criticized the current California state curriculum standards as being "a mile wide and an inch deep" — meaning that students are expected to cram too many facts and figures into their brains, but are seldom required to demonstrate that they have a deeper understanding of the significance or meaning behind those facts and figures.
That's why Dimas and his colleague Bustamonte say they are excited for the implementation of the national Common Core curriculum standards, which call for a great deal more of the type of project-based learning and technology-aided education that teachers are learning at FAME. California's Legislature signed on to adopt the Common Core standards back in 2010 and the state is set to roll out the new nationwide curriculum in 2014.
The new Common Core curriculum focuses on going deeper on a narrower set of criteria rather than cramming as many concepts as possible into a school year, Dimas and Bustamonte said. Though it is not clear exactly what the standards test at the end of each year will look like under the Common Core system, the FAME instructors said students will likely be expected not to simply fill in bubbles on a Scantron sheet, but to explain how they arrived at answers — making students more likely to retain the information, instead of regurgitating it on a test and then forgetting it a few days afterward.
The Common Core standards will focus on ensuring students develop skills for the 21st century, according to Dimas and Bustamonte. The FAME program is also helping teachers like Kaiser get familiar with new technologies. The teachers are taught how to incorporate Microsoft Excel, free Google tools and web-based teaching programs into their classes.
After attending FAME, Kaiser set up her own class web page, using the free Sites application from Google. She also uses a program called Edmodo — a social networking site where students can post questions directly to her or to a news feed that other students can access. The results have been promising, Kaiser said.
"There are more conversations led by the students," Kaiser said. "They feel more validated, and they're talking to each other more."
Kaiser said she would like to return to the FAME program in the future and added that she hopes other local teachers enroll if they can. "I really hope more teachers go through it and I hope that more principals get their teachers to go," she said. "It's a really, really good program."