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Professor Steve Rhine has earned several large national grants to help improve teacher education.Professor Steve Rhine has earned several large national grants to help improve teacher education.

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Graduate School of Education professor earns grant to improve algebra teaching

Willamette University Graduate School of Education Professor Steve Rhine has earned a $742,000 Fund for Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create the Algebraic Thinking Project, which aims to restructure the way new teachers learn to open the algebra gateway for their students.

Professors from George Fox University, Pacific University and Western Oregon University will collaborate with Rhine to restructure Math Methods courses for student teachers, helping improve the future teachers' knowledge, skills and dispositions toward the way students think about algebra. The goal is to improve younger students' algebra understanding, test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment.

The team will create the Center for Algebraic Thinking, a pool of resources that includes an online encyclopedia of algebraic thinking, a catalog of formative assessment problems and a matrix of technological tools.

FIPSE provides grants to projects that seek to improve the quality of postsecondary education. Awards are made in a number of areas, including postsecondary education access; retention and completion; student preparation for college; cost-effectiveness; and curricula reform.

Rhine calls algebra the "gatekeeper" math course that stands between students and the rest of their education, including college — although far too many students struggle with it.

Part of the problem is that algebra has students start moving away from tangible questions where they can see that 5 plus 4 equals 9, Rhine says. Once students start using variables and tools such as the quadratic equation, the concepts become more abstract, he says — leading students to start thinking equations work "magically" instead of trying to understand how they work.

"The more teachers know about their students' misconceptions concerning algebra, the more they can help students learn the concepts," Rhine says.

Rhine is currently writing "The Teacher's Handbook of Algebraic Thinking and Misconceptions" to help teachers tackle these issues.

The FIPSE grant is not Rhine's first major national award. He also has acquired two separate million-dollar grants to improve the use of technology in Oregon classrooms.

One grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers to Use Technology Program funded the Oregon Technology in Education Network, a group of six Oregon universities working to help teachers successfully use technology in the classroom.

Learn more about Steve Rhine's research and work to improve teacher education in a 2006 article.

10-08-2010