UC-led institutes help high schoolers ‘nail algebra’

In Oakland High School's Engineering Geometry with Physics class on a recent morning, there wasn't a textbook or protractor in sight.

Instead, a handful of old saws stood piled onto a workbench. X-acto knives and rolls of duct tape lay scattered across lab tables, while students hunched over cardboard models of houses in various stages of construction.

The assignment: Design a house that could produce heating and cooling, relying only on sunlight and not-so-simple math. Tenth-graders Luis Almendarez and Jesse Marino demonstrated how, on their model, the ratio of glass to inside space created enough thermal mass to store energy, while the angle of the roof overhangs controlled for the amount light slanting in.

At the start of the year, the students in this class were struggling in math, in danger of falling behind at a juncture critical not just to their prospects for college, but also for productive employment. Not all students in the class have been willing to engage with the coursework, which teacher Kory Mildenberger says is more demanding than its strictly academic equivalents. But for many, the hands-on exercises have sparked a new appreciation for the subjects.

“I figured out you actually do need math to do something like this,” said Almendarez. “Before I had the feeling you could sort of make it up — but you really do need to know how to do the measurements and make the calculations or it doesn't work.”

Creating a course framework in four days

The course was developed through the University of California's Curriculum Integration (UCCI) Institutes, a program to develop new curricula that will both teach trade job skills and meet core college-going requirements.

UC plays an integral role in shaping California's high school curriculum by certifying which courses will qualify students for entry to the state's public universities. Run by the UC Office of the President, the institutes were designed in response to a growing call for high school courses that hone both college- and career-readiness.

While the number of courses that meet the requirements for both has exploded from 250 in 2000 to more than 11,000 today, very few earn credit in the core academic subjects of English, math, history and social science.

That is precisely the gap UCCI Institutes seek to address. Over the course of the four-day workshops — UCCI convenes six each year for academic and vocational teachers statewide — participants are grouped into teams and charged with devising a curriculum that pairs a particular career focus — say, residential construction — with a specific academic subject area, such as algebra II. At the end of the conference, each team presents a framework for a course that reinforces academic skills while teaching practical, hands-on skills like framing a house, shooting a video or running a hotel beverage operation.

The institutes have produced more than 30 frameworks for courses, 16 of which have been formally approved and adopted, and which are now being taught at more than two dozen schools around the state. This year, the program received expanded California Department of Education funding, enabling it to increase the number of institutes from two to six a year and to produce an expected 24 course frameworks a year. The funding will also speed approval and implementation of these classes so they can make it from the conference room into the classroom.

“A lot of students may have this idea that they're not college material — they're just taking these courses because they're cool, fun and interesting,'” said UCCI Communications Coordinator Deborah McCaskey. “And then they end up becoming prepared because they've taken integrated courses. They think: ‘I know I can do this and it's interesting. I'm going to apply to college.'”

Offering a leg-up for struggling students

Teachers say the courses have the potential to breathe new life into academic subjects that even high-achieving students can find abstract and irrelevant.

For students who don't perform well in the traditional classroom setting, the kinds of blended courses developed through UCCI can mean the difference between going to college or struggling just to earn a high school diploma.

South Tahoe High School teacher Kristi Leonard, whose DaVinci Algebra class uses perspective drawing and other elements of art to build a foundation for math concepts, said she has seen a transformation in many of her students, who have gone from failing to earning high marks. “The process teaches them a willingness to persist — to keep going and work toward clarity.”

At a recent workshop focused on math and building trades, Gus Amador, a carpentry and construction teacher at San Francisco's John O'Connell High School, explained why he had come to the workshop. “We feel like we're creating something that's really, really beneficial for the kids of this state.”

Amador sat in a conference room surrounded by candy wrappers and large sheets of white poster paper scrawled with notes for a course to be called Constructing Geometry.

“For 80 percent of my students, they're not planning to go to college. They just want to learn the craft,” he said. Math is a stumbling block for many of his students to earning a high school diploma. “This gives them motivation to pass the class. Because they are able to see the connection, it works for them.”