Math Extravaganza Accelerates Study and Retention of Science

Originally published December 12, 2014

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

Most high school sophomores participating in November’s “Skatepark Mathematics Extravaganza” thought parts of their campuses were turned into X Games-style skate parks, but to UTEP’s Bill Robertson, those skate parks were outdoor research labs.

Robertson, Ph.D., associate provost for academic technologies and an award-winning skateboarder, has promoted math and science among middle school students for years through his Action Science series of books, DVDs, demonstrations and classroom-based activities. He believes it will be easier for students to learn and retain information if they enjoy the academic process and understand science’s role in their lives.

The athletic feats of BMX racers and skateboarders educated and entertained students at Montwood High School last month as part of new “Skatepark Mathematics Extravaganza” led by UTEP’s Bill “Dr. Skateboard” Robertson. Photo courtesy of Bill Robertson.
The athletic feats of BMX racers and skateboarders educated and entertained students at Montwood High School last month as part of a new “Skatepark Mathematics Extravaganza” led by UTEP’s Bill “Dr. Skateboard” Robertson, Ph.D. Photo courtesy of Bill Robertson.

The University of Texas at El Paso associate professor of teacher education has collected anecdotal evidence over time from teachers to support his theory, but he wanted to legitimize it scientifically. He developed Skatepark Mathematics to collect the necessary data to study his premise, while enhancing the education of high school sophomores and the professional development of their teachers.

More than 4,000 students enjoyed the high-energy demonstrations by professional and top amateur skateboarders and BMX (Bicycle Moto-Cross) riders at six Socorro Independent School District (SISD) campuses. Almost half of them were part of the target group that documented their observations and real-world findings about acceleration, velocity, drag and total degree revolutions. Student teams then calculated the results and shared their conclusions in their algebra and geometry classes.

“We’re trying to systematically learn the real value of Action Science,” said Robertson, also known as Dr. Skateboard. “The results will go a long way to validate learning outcomes.”

Teachers who witnessed the demonstration and participated in the professional development workshops thanked Robertson for giving them another tool to engage their students in a fun and effective manner. Many captured fantastic moments of athleticism on camera and shared them on social media.

Edgar Ponce, chair of the math department at Socorro High School, said the presentation was memorable for the athletic feats and for being able to use them to teach geometry.

“The teachers were excited and they were able to transfer that emotion to their students,” said Ponce, who earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 2009 and his master’s in educational leadership four years later from UTEP.

The students loved the demonstrations and were excited to apply what they learned in their classrooms, said Edgar Alberto Rincon, assistant principal at El Dorado High School.

“Teachers commented to me that we should have things like this more often,” said Rincon, a UTEP alumnus who received his undergraduate degree in education in 2005 and his master’s in education administration in 2008. “Bringing the excitement of seeing these talented individuals perform and applying what they see using math and science formulas in the classroom is truly what education is all about.”

Participants and 30 of their teachers submitted surveys about their level of motivation, engagement and knowledge of the fundamental math concepts. The data is being evaluated by Robertson and two UTEP colleagues: Arturo Olivarez, Ph.D., professor of teacher education, and Reynaldo Reyes, Ph.D., associate professor of teacher education.

Reyes said there are no initial findings yet, but he was encouraged by his observations and informal conversations with campus teachers.

His ongoing research into socio-cultural roles in education attracted him to Robertson’s innovative efforts to connect students from historically underrepresented populations such as Latinos with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects to a point where it might influence their career path. He said the curriculum “hook” could lead to a better understanding of how to teach and learn complex subjects.

“I saw studying Action Science and Skatepark Math as an opportunity to understand how an innovative curriculum, even as a supplement to the main curriculum, could act as a disrupter to traditional teaching, student engagement and creating another pathway to STEM subjects that historically, and even today, have been ones in which we have not seen many Latina/o students,” Reyes said.

Robertson’s decision to use his Skatepark Mathematics concept in the SISD started with a conversation with Juliette Caire, executive director of UTEP’s GEAR UP, which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. The two had worked before in a similar program that also was funded by the U.S. Department of Education. This new project is part of GEAR UP SOAR (Solutions for Optimal Academic Readiness).

Caire said activities such as Skatepark Mathematics demonstrate math and science concepts in a dynamic and innovative fashion.

“For our students and teachers, these demonstrations provide a relevant connection to today’s world of STEM by providing opportunities for problem-based learning and critical thinking skills,” Caire said. “The objective is to inspire students to investigate careers in STEM and provide educators with tools that enrich traditional curriculum.”