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Using Mathematics to Support Science

By: Alise Brann, Tracy Gray, and PowerUp WHAT WORKS

Introduction

Mathematics helps us to understand science, and to design, conduct, and analyze the results of scientific experiments. Science requires us to collect data, interpret it for significant patterns, and make conclusions that further our knowledge. To collect and analyze data, students must be able to apply mathematical content and practices in order to:

  • Select appropriate tools to gather and analyze data
  • Use tools to model the data by describing it mathematically
  • Reason quantitatively to understand the data
  • Reason abstractly to draw conclusions

The video below, Applying Mathematics Skills for Success in Science, provides a clear explanation of the ways in which mathematics supports science education.



Strategies to help students

Different science content makes use of different mathematical concepts and strategies. However, there are some concepts and strategies that students should always consider. For example, it is important to:

  • Help students understand that a good scientific question is one where you can investigate phenomena and predict outcomes (answers) based on patterns. Have students consider how mathematics could aid in their investigations.
  • Emphasize big ideas — those that have explanatory power within and across scientific disciplines and can connect to real-world problems. Mathematics can help make these connections by describing behavior using language that can transfer across subjects. (See UDL Checkpoint 7.2: Optimize relevance, value, and authenticity.)
  • Use language that emphasizes the underlying mathematics when providing students with positive and substantive feedback to correct misunderstandings.

Integrating technology

There are many high-quality technology tools available — either for free or at a low cost — to support students as they learn about mathematics and apply their knowledge to other subjects. Examples of the free technology tools include Desmos (an online graphing calculator), Stat Silk (a visualizing and mapping tool), and the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives.

There are also many interactive and other multimedia resources that students can access to build background knowledge. Some examples of science-focused resources are provided below:

  • Stellarium is a 3D sky application that allows you to explore what constellations look like from different parts of the world, and to understand that they look different depending on where you are.
  • The Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Biointeractives are videos, animations, and simulations that address new research in the life sciences.
  • The National Science Digital Library's collection is made up of resources from numerous STEM education organizations.

For more examples of technology tools or resources that can deepen background science knowledge, visit the Tech Matters blog or PowerUp's Pinterest page.

In the classroom

Mrs. Martin's Grade 5 science class previously conducted an experiment to study how physical and chemical changes affect the mass of various substances. Now, she is going to have students analyze the data they collected and draw conclusions based on their observations. She recently introduced the class to the coordinate system, which allows students to graph and analyze their data.

Mrs. Martin sees this as a good opportunity to reinforce their mathematics learning and practice plotting data points. Her specific objective is to have students graph data on the coordinate plane and use the graph to analyze the data. Her objective aligns with the mathematics Common Core State Standards, specifically CCSS.Math.5.G.A.2 (Represent real world and mathematical problems by graphing points in the first quadrant of the coordinate plane, and interpret coordinate values of points in the context of the situation).

In addition to relying on her interactive whiteboard, she will have students use a Google Spreadsheet to collect and organize data, and a graphing tool to create a graph of their data.

As a warm-up activity, Mrs. Martin graphs a sample data set using the Shodor Scatter Plot.

Shodor Scatter Plot

She will have the class make observations about this graph before they move on to graphing and analyzing their own data. To bring closure to the lesson, she will engage the whole class in a discussion, giving them all a chance to share observations that will eventually lead them to the conservation of mass principle.

The chart below details her lesson plan, which is divided into three parts: launch, learning task, and closure.

Lesson Plan

Launch
  • Review the experiment the class previously conducted, as well as the scientific question they are going to investigate.
  • Have the class analyze the data they have collected, modeling expected behavior.
  • Have students consider sources of scientific error and relevant mathematics when analyzing the data.
Learning Task
  • Introduce the learning task, instructing students to work with their own experimental data.
  • Circulate, listening to discussions and supporting students, as necessary.
  • Guide student discussion so that it focuses on observations that relate to the conservation of mass principle.
Closure
  • Lead a class discussion, making sure that data from both physical and chemical changes are examined and discussed.
  • Encourage students to generalize their observations, which will prepare them for a future lesson on conservation of mass.

Online teacher resources

This article draws from the PowerUp WHAT WORKS website, particularly the Supporting Science Instructional Strategy Guide. PowerUp is a free, teacher-friendly website that requires no log in or registration. The Instructional Strategy Guide on Supporting Science includes a complete description of Mrs. Martin's lesson. It also includes a brief overview of the topic with an accompanying slide show; a list of the relevant mathematics Common Core State Standards; evidence-based teaching strategies to differentiate instruction using technology; short videos; and links to resources that will help you use technology to support math instruction. If you are responsible for professional development, check out the PD Support Materials for helpful ideas and materials for using the resources. Want more information? Check out PowerUp WHAT WORKS.

Alise Brann, Tracy Gray, and PowerUp WHAT WORKS (2014)