Great celestial bodies populate the solar system. For an untrained eye staring at the heavens, the starlight spectacles and endless seas of blackness are nothing short of a miracle. Researchers, however, have developed mathematical equations that may help us understand such mysteries of the universe. From Isaac Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation to Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the scientific community has paved the way for a greater understanding of the great beyond.
We began this interview with the intent of focusing, as we usually do, on one person’s research. However, this query soon became—like the collaborative work it highlights—a joint project involving James R. Koller and Karen Weston of the Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology in the College of Education, two individuals working together to “think outside the box” by creating the Center for the Advancement of Mental Health Practices in the Schools, now affectionately called “the Center” by its members. “The Center was created in response to the rising number of students in need of mental health services today,” states its homepage. It was initiated “as a paradigm shift that recognizes prevention as a fundamental element in supporting our nation’s youth facing developmental challenges, psycho-social issues, and environmental stressors within the school system and community . . . with the whole thrust being a paradigmatic shift from mental illness to mental health.” Of course, “you’re never going to get away from mental illness,” admits Koller, “but instead of waiting until pathology occurs, the question posed to me was how we can do something different. How can we better prepare consumers at all levels to be better informed so that we can create a positive learning environment for each learner and increase her or his self-concept, while academic learning flourishes?”
While Podgursky doesn’t believe there is a shortage of qualified teachers, he does want to see more teachers who have extensive training in areas like math and science. He explains that the certification system acts as a barrier for potential applicants skilled in biological and physical sciences.
Recently, school districts and states have started collecting large data sets about students and teachers. Podgursky compares this tremendous treasure-trove of data to a candy shop for economists. These longitudinal data systems are important, because by analyzing student growth and achievement he can also determine the productivity rates of individual teachers.
Chicone describes how he became interested in studying mathematics. Beginning with positive experiences he had as a student, his love for the subject continued
Chicone contributes to other fields of science outside of mathematics, cooperating, for example, with MU’s Medical School and School of Engineering to produce the kind of mathematical models that now play an integral role in designing predictions for scientific experiments.
Chicone discusses the fundamental importance of mathematics for the natural world, observing that mathematics serves an array of practical purposes. He gives the example of one of his students, who freezes tissue for a project in cryobiology. The researchers working on this project are using mathematical models to make predictions about the behavior of living cells.
Chicone believes math is an artistic expression like music, painting, and theatre. Not everyone can identify with this art, he admits, but those who can are able to develop a strong appreciation for problem-solving.
The Center has been working with the School of Nursing and the College of Education at MU to provide mental health training for nurses, teachers, principals, and school counselors. Thanks to the collaboration with Vocational Rehabilitation, the Department of Health, the national centers on mental health, and other federal agencies, they have been able to do outreach, sharing, collaboration, and program development. “That’s the only way we’re going to be able to surmount some of these issues,” Koller remarks. “Without that collaboration, we would not be where we are today.”
In its mission to convince lay people and the professional community about the importance of early intervention, the Center has encountered several obstacles. Trying to modify teacher certification requirements to include coursework in this area, for example, has been like “trying to teach an old dog a new trick,” Koller recounts. For one thing, people tend to think that mental illness problems and substance abuse don’t exist in their own community. “There is a naiveté that befits the general society as well as the professional ones. We really have to work on shaping and re-shaping the mentality towards mental health; it is a systemic problem that is going to take a long time.”