Dallas (SMU) – "Train A leaves the station at 10:00 a.m. An hour later train B leaves the same station on a parallel track . . ." The dreaded algebra train question still stumps test-takers, ranging from eighth-graders to those preparing for graduate school exams.

There are better ways to teach algebra, says SMU math researcher Candace Walkington, who recently received a three-year $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop and test strategies to engage students in algebra problem-solving. The grant targets the use of algebra problems to interest students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.

“Algebra is the relationship between quantities,” says Walkington, an associate professor of teaching and learning who specializes in math education at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. “Students use algebra all the time – when they calculate sports statistics, when they compare their social media accounts. They just don’t realize it.”

Her research will explore the value of giving students algebra problems that relate to their career interests, giving them opportunities to create their own problems and use problem-solving to develop interest in STEM careers. The grant will fund further development of an existing online tool, ASSISTments, which will enable students to solve or create algebra problems based on their own interests. The tool will feature videos of professionals in STEM fields discussing how they use algebra in their jobs.

Walkington will compare approaches to determine which problems help students understand algebra, increase their interest in algebra and deepen their interest in STEM careers. This grant builds on her prior research showing that students learn algebra better when it is connected to their everyday interests.

The stakes are high, Walkington says. The number of students pursuing STEM degrees is growing by just 1 percent each year, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. That will leave 2.5 million STEM and STEM-related jobs unfilled in 2018 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Successfully navigating algebra is key to preparation for STEM jobs, Walkington says.

In addition, finding ways to support diverse students in algebra is important for encouraging more women and under-represented minorities to pursue careers in STEM fields, she says. Her research collaborators include a local community college system, North Central Texas College.

“The college algebra failure rate is high,” she says. “Many students take the course over and over, and eventually give up, blocking them from pursuing STEM careers like nursing, computer programming or medical technology. Connecting algebra to careers helps students understand why they need to learn algebra.”

Walkington is partnering with collaborators Matthew Bernacki at University of North Carolina, Neil Heffernan at Worchester Polytechnic Institute, Harsha Perera at University of Nevada and Elizabeth Howell at North Central Texas College.

“By connecting algebra variables to things students understand, algebra problems are no longer symbols of another language,” Walkington says. “We want students to be successful.”