A crime had been committed, and it was up to the assembled high school freshmen to use their math skills to nab the suspect.
More than 20 students who will enter Big Sky High School as freshmen this year are spending the next two weeks taking part in a summer "bridge camp" designed to prepare them for math class this fall.
Each day of the camp, which is being held at the University of Montana, students will review math topics in a whole new way, by combining skill mastery with a series of interactive lessons.
Monday morning’s challenge placed each student into the role of a crime scene investigator, applying algebra, decimals, fractions and ratios to uncover the person who committed a murder and stole $1 million.
At a table up front, Grasey Szwedkowicz, Hannah Silva and Taylor Owen worked to determine which of the 10 suspects had enough time to complete the crime.
Using the time each suspect came in and out of the building for a break, the students tried to determine whose whereabouts were unknown for at least 36 minutes, the time needed to commit the crime.
“I got 30 minutes,” Owen said.
“Well, I got 28 minutes,” replied Silva, who was working on the same suspect.
Although both answers meant the alleged perpetrator was safe from blame, the team had to go back to make sure they had each of the answers correct.
The morning’s exercises also included examining the ratios of chemicals in a poison found at the scene of the crime, as well as the fractions of different materials that made up a fiber of clothing found by investigators.
Students attending the camp were identified as needing assistance with their math scores in an assessment they took earlier this year, said Matt Roscoe, a math education professor at the University of Montana who is one of the camp's organizers.
Roscoe, as well as C.S. Porter Middle School teacher Britany Eisenzimer and Big Sky math teacher Ariel Cornelius, put together the lesson plans for each day of the camp.
A few years ago, Missoula County Public Schools eliminated lower-track math courses from its high schools.
“Research shows that when they got on the lower track they never get out,” Roscoe said.
The camp is one way to make sure all students are ready for the standard math course when they enter high school later in the month.
Roscoe’s own research at UM has focused on changing math courses to include more interactive and creative components, saying the courses should be more student-led and less teacher-imposed.
“Math should be a tool to answer questions about the world around you,” he said.
Eisenzimer started teaching at C.S. Porter in January, and will teach seventh-grade math this year. She did her student-teaching in an eighth-grade class at Hellgate Elementary School.
The bridge camp's approach is very different from the way math was taught at Hellgate Elementary, she said, but it is also different because the two-week course covers review topics, not new curriculum.
“There, it was go over the homework, explain the lesson, here’s your worksheet that we need to fill out,” Eisenzimer said.
Cornelius spent the morning moving around the classroom, stopping at tables to help students through any particularly tricky roadblocks. One of the issues she has seen in her own classes is that students often have difficulty asking for help when they don’t feel they have a good grasp on a topic.
“It’s great to see the struggles they are having, but also the triumphs,” she said.
During the second half of Monday’s class, each group of students received a GPS-enabled watch and set out across campus to collect data on the distance they traveled and the time it took them.
“They will be using that to help them come up with an answer to a bigger question, like how long would it take them to walk across the state of Montana,” Roscoe said.
The rest of the challenges they will face over the next two weeks are just as creative, including studying the stock market and collecting data using flying toys called Arrowcopters.
On Friday, as part of an exercise combining math with engineering and science, students will build motorized cars from kits donated by the Society of Automotive Engineers.
The goal will be to drive the vehicles up a ramp. A representative from the SAE will be in town from Detroit to watch the activity.
“The engines in the kits aren’t powerful enough to do the job themselves, so the students will have to learn about gear ratios and apply that information to complete the task,” Roscoe said.