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Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching recipient Ralph Pantozzi.
Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Pantozzi

 

When Ralph Pantozzi introduces the theory of probability to sixth graders at the Kent Place School in Summit, he leads the entire all-girls middle school out to the soccer field to start flipping coins: If it’s heads, take one step forward, and if it’s tails, one step back.

As nearly 150 students walk back and forth in seemingly random movements, they suddenly group themselves into a bell curve – a well-known statistical model illustrating the normal distribution of data. “It’s visually stunning,” Pantozzi says. “It both answers questions and leads to more questions.”

Instead of teaching math from a chalkboard, Pantozzi presents everyday problems, such as the probable outcome of a coin toss, to teach mathematical principles. Pantozzi, who developed his pedagogy as a student at Rutgers, was recently honored with a prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching by the White House.

“Ralph is really unique and he’s extremely talented and extremely committed,” says Carolyn Maher, a distinguished professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, who taught Pantozzi. “He deserves to be recognized for his work.”

Pantozzi credits his professors at Rutgers not only for exposing him to innovative ways to teach math, but also for giving him the opportunity to apply these pedagogical strategies in real classrooms. As an undergraduate at Rutgers College studying mathematics, Pantozzi enrolled in a graduate course in which he used problem-solving to teach math to New Brunswick fourth graders on Saturday mornings.

“It was amazing what they could do,” Pantozzi says. “Many students in city schools are written off because they live in the city — they get lumped into a stereotype. But using these teaching methods, these students were doing math far above their grade level.”

Pantozzi used the same teaching methods as a student in Rutgers Graduate School of Education when he joined a research project that was following a group of students in Kenilworth from second grade through high school graduation. The researchers found that by teaching math using problem-solving, such as learning probability using a box of colored marbles, the students were better able to retain the information.

“Telling people about math often does not stick, but teaching them this way often does,” Pantozzi says. “The students find this much more memorable and they remember their math facts better when they see the connections.”

While working on his doctorate in education, Pantozzi became a math teacher in the same high school in Kenilworth and led a school-wide reform initiative to bring experiential learning to the math classes. Over the next decade, he taught and supervised math departments in three other districts.

As public schools in New Jersey and across the country began focusing on standardized test scores, Pantozzi found it more difficult to teach math by exploring real-world problems. “Getting students to do better in math sometimes requires patience,” he says. “They can get some things earlier than you might expect, but some things are going to take time to understand well.”

When the Kent Place School, an independent college preparatory school, asked him to build its math program in 2011, he immediately accepted the offer. With 600 students, the school had small classes where Pantozzi could apply his problem-solving pedagogy and the administration welcomed new approaches to teaching math.

Nine years later, students in Kent Place’s middle school show more confidence in their math skills, and students in the high school are enrolling in more math classes at the AP level or higher. “Both the level of academics and the joy with which the students approach math have increased under Ralph’s tenure,” says Julie Gentile, director of studies at the school.

Beyond the presidential award, Pantozzi has attracted national attention by speaking at education conferences and publishing pedagogical materials for math teachers. Last August, he was one of seven educators featured on the NPR “Science Friday” program because of their innovative approaches to STEM teaching.

Maher says educators like Pantozzi need to continue advocating for teaching math through problem-solving, even as education becomes more focused on boosting test scores. “Ralph’s approach to teaching is very student centered and very much built on developing mathematical understanding and learning how to work together using whatever tools are appropriate,” she says. “It’s a wonderful way to teach, but unfortunately a lot of teaching is just to pass the test.”