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Schools join in advanced math challenge

Bill Scott is one of 16 faculty members on the Phillips team.
Bill Scott is one of 16 faculty members on the Phillips team.Juliette Lynch for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

As John Palfrey Jr., the head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover, was searching for a way to share the boarding school’s educational materials with students across the globe, he came up with an idea that is now challenging — and energizing — both faculty and students.

Shortly after he took the post in the summer of 2012, Palfrey proposed that the school collaborate with Khan Academy , a nonprofit organization that provides a free education in a variety of subjects to anyone with access to the Internet.

“There is enormous power in using open education to make available the kinds of materials that are available in great education institutions,” Palfrey said.

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Sal Khan, the founder and executive director of Khan Academy, visited the Phillips campus last spring, setting the partnership between the two institutions in motion.

The Internet academy, whose users include teachers, parents, principals, and students in kindergarten to Grade 12, wanted to provide Advanced Placement level calculus materials that met the College Board's Common Core state standards. Palfrey and the Phillips math department faculty agreed to take on the task of creating problems for enhancing calculus skills that Khan Academy would then publish on its website for its students to use.

Phillips Academy’s chairman of the department of mathematics, statistics, and computer science, Bill Scott, is one of several instructors who spearheaded the collaboration.

“It’s part of our DNA to look beyond ourselves to help educate people beyond our campus boundaries,” he said.

Khan Academy ultimately will need about 2,400 calculus problems, Scott said. The Phillips Academy team has created 630 problems that are currently published on Khan Academy’s website, with about 100 more problems awaiting approval.

“I’m pretty confident that we will be able to finish this project in a year. I think it’s important to us that we do,’’ Scott said.

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One of the calculus pages on the Khan Academy website.
One of the calculus pages on the Khan Academy website.www.khanacademy.org

The Phillips math department has about 16 faculty members working on writing calculus problems for Khan Academy. A few advanced placement juniors and seniors will occasionally create calculus content for homework assignments.

Scott said that when he wrote his first set of 30 problems last August, it took him about 30 hours over a week’s time. Now that he has mastered the technique, he can complete a set in one hour.

The Phillips Academy team will typically write two batches of 30 problems per week and send them to retired faculty member David Penner, who checks them for accuracy. Penner was on the math faculty for 44 years.

Penner makes corrections as needed, then sends the problems back to Scott, who uploads them and their solutions to Khan Academy’s online platform. Ben Eater, Khan Academy’s lead exercise developer, gives the final approval before the problems are published.

“I’m happy with what we’re doing,” Eater said. “The opportunity for this partnership came up and it seemed like a great fit. We’re way ahead of where we thought we’d be with calculus because we thought we’d be doing it ourselves. Having this partnership, this opportunity has accelerated our progress.”

Eater added that between Aug. 15 and Oct. 15 of this year, about 120,000 Khan Academy users completed calculus problems written by Phillips Academy faculty members.

Prior to the partnership, Khan Academy had one set of numbers that yielded five different calculus problems on its website. Now, with the help of Phillips Academy, Khan has 15 problem sets with about 35 separate questions in each.

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“It’s almost ‘100-fold’ in terms of the variety of problems,” Eater said.

Eater also collects data from the website and analyzes it to determine what problems students get wrong most frequently and why, and whether the questions could be improved by rewording or restructuring. He gives the feedback to the faculty at Phillips Academy so they can make them clearer and more solvable.

Khan Academy isn’t the only partner reaping benefits from the collaboration.

The endeavor fits with Phillips Academy’s mission, reflected in its motto — non sibi, which in Latin means “not for self,” said Palfrey.

In addition, the Andover school is improving its own teaching methods.

“The very act of coming up with these exercises, and studying what works and what doesn’t, makes our teachers more effective in their teaching and our students more effective in their learning,” Palfrey said. “Students can also use the materials on Khan Academy.”

Palfrey added that the partnership could expand depending on the interest the faculty develops in the project.

“It’s an exciting way for people to learn and to supplement what they’re doing in the classroom,” Palfrey said. “The passion has to come from the faculty in order for it to work, and the faculty has thus far jumped on it enthusiastically.”


Terri Ogan can be reached at oganglobe@gmail.com.