'It's strictly done from a math standpoint. There's no morality issue.' - Johnny Lott, UM professorWhen the SIMMS Project was introduced into Montana high schools in 1992, educators wanted to give students a realistic glimpse of how mathematics applies to the real world.
Seven years later, the acclaimed math curriculum reform project, developed in part at the University of Montana, has succeeded on at least one front - AIDS education.
SIMMS, which stands for the Systematic Initiative for Montana Mathematics and Science, was recently honored with a Governor's Award for its role in teaching students about AIDS and HIV. The SIMMS Project was singled out for a ninth-grade unit entitled "AIDS: The Preventable Epidemic."
"We use real-world data to make kids aware of AIDS and communicable disease, through math," said Johnny Lott, a UM math professor who serves as co-director of the SIMMS Project.
The award was presented to Lott, on behalf of the Montana Council of Teachers of Mathematics, by state schools superintendent Nancy Keenan at a ceremony in Helena on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1. The SIMMS Project received one of 10 1998 Governor's Awards, which are presented by the state Office of Public Instruction and the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
During the two-week AIDS unit, Lott said students use data collected from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study probability and statistics. He said students use the data to study issues such as how fast the virus spreads, death rates and the probability of contracting AIDS through different means, such as intravenous drug use or unprotected sex.
"It's strictly done from a math standpoint. There's no morality issue," Lott said.
But he said students are definitely able to reach their own conclusions after looking at AIDS from a mathematical standpoint.
"One message the kids get … is that the safest way not to be infected with AIDS or the HIV virus is abstention," Lott said. "They can see that for themselves. You don't have to beat them over the head with it."
The SIMMS project, which has been funded through a National Science Foundation grant, is currently being taught to about 8,000 high school students in 75 Montana high schools, including schools in Missoula, Kalispell, St. Ignatius, Ronan and Polson. Schools in other states such as Texas, Ohio and Virginia have also adopted the curriculum, Lott said.
Along with incorporating a realistic element into the math curriculum, Lott said the program also reinforces what students have learned in other classes.
"They have heard about AIDS in health class before, but never in math class," Lott said.