Math is No Longer a Four-Letter Word: A Mixed Methods Study of Two Non-Traditional Fourth-Year Mathematics Classes

Educators and policymakers envision high school mathematics as vital in the pursuit of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) professions and a way to cultivate a deep appreciation of mathematics in society. With two such significant aspirations, there is advocacy for expanding the traditional course offerings in high school mathematics to include courses such as Discrete Mathematics Project Collaborative (DMPC) and Introduction to Data Science (IDS). Research on non-traditional high school mathematics courses has mostly focused on pathways, content, and pedagogy. This mixed methods case study expands our understandings by examining the perceptions and experiences of students enrolled in the DMPC and IDS course at two separate California high schools. Classroom observations, student focus groups, one-on-one teacher interviews, and a student survey were collected and analyzed using the analytical framework of self-determination theory, which posits competence (self-efficacy), autonomy (agency), and relatedness (a sense of belonging) are essential for positive motivation and meaningful learning. Three significant findings unite the DMPC and IDS case studies. Students in these two courses (a) perceive themselves as connected within a community of learners; (b) experience curiosity and creative freedom, unlike previous mathematics courses they may have completed; (c) use the words fun and easy in complex ways to describe their experiences. These findings have important implications as interest greatly increases to expand high school mathematics pathways and to implement the DMPC and IDS courses in more high schools statewide and nationally.