Using natural disasters to teach math to school kids

Talk about a silver lining.

The Philippines and other countries in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) region have been working on a project since 2012 to use disaster data as a means to teach math to elementary and high school students.

In an email interview with Professor Jun Obille of the University of the Philippines National institute for science and mathematics education development (UP-NISMED), this project is a collaboration between scientists, mathematicians and educators in an effort to make students more emotionally involved with math and to “train” teachers to improve themselves and develop themselves professionally through collaborations.

Inspiration from Japan, Thailand

The project is the brainchild of Dr. Masami Isoda of the University of Tsukuba, Japan and Dr. Maitree Inprasitha of Khon Kaen University, Thailand, after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011 and the great flood in Thailand before that. Realizing the wealth of scientific and statistical data gathered from these events, they came up with the idea of using real disaster data as a way to educate children about disaster awareness, survival and math.

Funded by APEC, specialists from Japan and Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, US, Chile, and Peru come together yearly to develop textbooks, mathematical tasks and teaching techniques depending on the type of natural disaster. Last year it was about earthquakes and tsunamis. This year it’s about typhoons and floods and for 2014, they’ll be talking about fires and volcanic eruptions.

A lesson study is then conducted in each country to customize the proposed curricula according to the country’s needs. Here, teachers plan their lessons according to the recommendations of the specialists and try it out in a classroom setting.

The lessons are modified depending on what works best for the students and the results are reported, discussed, and additional modifications would be made on the protocol depending on the real life results. According to Prof Obille, the final results would be uploaded soon but could not specify a date. The project is expected to end by 2014.
Math and survival

Prof Obille and Dr. Soledad Ulep, the UP-NISMED counterparts for this project, are enthusiastic about the potential of what this can do for Filipino students. In addition to teaching children math, “The tasks should not only teach children about math, it should also teach kids how to survive”, according to Prof. Obille. And although the project is focused mainly on math, he believes that the project has broader applications, like teaching the science of natural disasters, teaching children preparedness, and showing kids how math can be applied to other real life situations like traffic and city planning.

Prof. Obille also believes that this approach may work better than the traditional math exercises because “The students will be emotionally engaged in the mathematical tasks because they will be real-life problems which may have even involved their own families and friends.”

Unfortunately, here in the Philippines, the teachers involved in the project aren’t getting a lot of government support. Unlike in Singapore and Thailand, where the teachers were given full support and have already integrated in the curriculum. And according to Prof. Obille, these two countries have already seen a significant rise in test scores as a result of early implementation.
Disaster preparedness

Dr. Mahar Lagmay, Director of Project NOAH, completely supports the UP-NISMED with the APEC project and believes that exposing children to disaster data to show how math and science are used in real life scenarios is necessary.

Dr. Lagmay explains, “Natural hazards are here to stay and will become worse with growing populations and development. To prepare for the future, we have to start learning about hazards through mathematics and mathematics through examples of hazards at a young age.”

— TJD, GMA News