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How to Solve Our Problem With Math

Three top schools in Los Angeles use different strategies to help students score in math and science.

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Fong teaches students how to use sophisticated computer software and recording equipment to create music, which they then learn to package commercially. The class requires students to draw on their conceptual knowledge of math and physics. "It really helps to make it interesting and real for students," Fong says. Rivas, who teaches AP physics, also knows that hands-on work makes physics come alive for many of his students who often didn't receive adequate exposure to science in elementary and middle school. So he takes students to conferences on space technology, where they meet scientists and engineers. His class also goes on an annual field trip to a theme park, where students learn how roller coasters are built. "Instead of them just hearing me talk about it, we go out there—and that really gets them excited," he says.

So far, the Lennox teachers' work is paying off. Three quarters of students are accepted to four-year colleges, including students who were not interested in math and science as freshmen but who say once they leave that they will consider college majors in those fields. "Before I came to this school, college never crossed my mind," says senior Francisco Hernandez. Now? "I'm thinking about going to medical school to become a trauma surgeon."

Back at CAMS, the enthusiasm for math and science is more immediate. That helps explain the pride and popularity of the "Nerd Herd," the highly successful robotics team at CAMS. "You'd be crazy to take this class if you weren't passionate about engineering," says Carpenter, the teacher that has challenged his students to a robot building competition. Carpenter is an engineer at Northrop Grumman who has taught at CAMS on a part-time basis for 15 years. Like other math and science teachers there, Carpenter requires students to work in teams and find creative solutions to real-life problems. Marcus Fairchild, a senior who wears an MIT T-shirt, says he likes the school's approach to teaching, which he describes as "Here's an impossible project. Discuss as a group. Now solve the problem."

Judging from the enthusiastic response to the robot challenge, it's easy to see why CAMS students are so successful. All 143 graduates last year were accepted to four-year colleges, and the majority of them said they planned to pursue math, science, or engineering degrees.

Corrected on 12/5/08: An earlier version of this article listed an incorrect ranking for Lennox Mathematics, Science and Technology Academy. The school is ranked No. 21 in the 2009 version of America's Best High Schools.