May 20, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

For a government agency that refused to acknowledge its existence until a few years ago, the National Security Agency (NSA) is making itself well known these days in Maryland's schools.

NSA employees can be found in math classrooms throughout the Baltimore-Washington corridor. The agency supports summer institutes for math teachers and students. Pupils in dozens of Maryland schools use former NSA computers and equipment -- with the top-secret files removed, of course.

"In just a few years, they've become an invaluable partner in mathematics education in Maryland," says Janie Zimmer, who oversees mathematics instruction in Howard County schools. "They've done a phenomenal job showing students the practical applications of mathematics."

Given that the agency's initials once were said to stand for "No Such Agency," the decision to assume a high-profile role in Maryland education didn't come easily -- particularly because the idea was first considered in the late 1980s, before the Cold War ended.

"NSAers just didn't go out into the community," recalls John R. Pettit, director of the Fort Meade agency's Mathematics Education Partnership Program. "This was a decision that took a lot of soul-searching and a lot of discussion."

But as the nation's largest employer of mathematicians, "The agency was very concerned about the future of mathematics education," Pettit says.

National and international studies indicate that the math skills of American students trail those of students in many other countries, and "we are worried about that," he says.

It didn't hurt that the NSA was considering the idea at the same time Congress and the president were encouraging federal agencies to be more active in communities and education, he says.

What began in 1991 as an NSA working group on kindergarten through 12th-grade math education has grown into an extensive program that helps teachers design lesson plans, finds tutors to give students one-on-one support and even takes over entire schools for a day of lessons. All of the NSA employees are volunteers who are given time off from work.

In a math class at Severn Elementary School one recent afternoon, NSA computer programmer Mike Blasi showed fourth-graders about probability, using coins, dice and the board game "Monopoly" to illustrate chance and fractions.

"If you understand a little more about probability, you'll end up winning more games and beating your friends more often," Blasi promised the Anne Arundel County 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds.

Blasi held their attention through three 45-minute lessons. "It was neat seeing someone who actually uses math," said fourth-grader Marla Muha, 10.

The lesson meshed perfectly with the instructional goals of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), the state's annual tests of schools' quality, said Maureen Maidhof, Severn Elementary's fourth-grade math teacher. Students were asked to work in teams to think through problems and write out their answers, like on the MSPAP.

"That's our main goal -- to support the math programs of local school systems and the state," says Julie Dunbar, an NSA program analyst who is assigned to the math education project.

The NSA publishes a catalog of dozens of topics that its employees can teach.

They range from the most popular -- an edible elementary lesson involving M&Ms, estimating and graphing -- to those involving the real world -- a high school lesson showing the mathematical model used to manage cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

In Howard County's Elkridge Elementary School recently, more than a dozen such lessons were given during a full day of math instruction for the students.

As Dunbar introduced Elkridge kindergartners to glyphs -- graphical illustrations of data common on the MSPAP -- another NSA employee showed students how to use protractors to bisect lines.

"I think it's important to show the students why they need to learn math," says NSA mathematician Brad Garner. "They need to see that math has a lot of very practical applications."

During the 1995-1996 school year, NSA employees gave 770 talks at almost 150 schools, primarily in Anne Arundel, Howard and Prince George's counties. This school year, they're on pace to exceed that number, in part because the agency has been sending speakers to schools in Baltimore as well.

Apart from the speakers bureau, NSA employees are active in partnerships with about 80 schools throughout the area, as well as in Southern Pennsylvania.

At Arundel High School, NSA employees help students prepare for the high-level American High School Math Exam competition, assist in grading problems for calculus classes and tutor students who are struggling.

"They've helped us however they can," says Arundel High Principal William Myers. "Anything we've asked for, they've found a way."

In addition, NSA employees help sponsor math contests for Maryland students, a math- and science-oriented summer camp for students on the Eastern Shore and several teacher training institutes. Teachers at those institutes develop math lessons that are distributed to schools across the country.

"Math is still looked down on sometimes as being an abstract language, but when you can show students something involving cryptology, that's fascinating to them," says Donna Crabbe, a math facilitator with the Maryland State Department of Education. "It's the kind of thing that persuades them to keep learning math through high school and college."

Pub Date: 5/20/97