Building math skills is especially important in younger grades.

A program at Western Kentucky University (WKU) is helping some elementary school teachers enhance how they teach math and use more technology in the classroom.

The three-year Math and Technology Leadership Academy is winding up its first year, but it’s already giving 14 teachers in Bowling Green new ideas and better teaching methods.

First-grade teacher Emily Mills said she was surprised by the response she got when she made a math video assignment. Mills told The Daily News of Bowling Green that after her students finished the assignment, they continued to make more videos on their own.

She called the program “the most beneficial graduate work I’ve ever done.”

A $500,000 grant from the Toyota USA Foundation helps cover teachers’ course fees and allows WKU faculty members to run the academy.

In addition to graduate-level online classes, teachers routinely attend seminars led by education experts and university professors. It comes at a time when educators are emphasizing the importance of math and technology.

Mills, a teacher at W.R. McNeill Elementary School, said the program has led her to try things in the classroom, such as the video math.

“So much of what we do is teaching with technology, but we’re actually getting it into the students’ hands and letting them show me what they can do with technology,” she said. “I’ve used it as a facilitator to make them learn.”

Jamie Rector, a second-grade teacher at Rockfield Elementary School, said her teaching methods have shifted, particularly in math. She said she now allows students to discuss problems and teach themselves while she supervises and answers questions.

“I’ve looked more into how I teach math and, instead of teaching the old way of standing in front of the class and talking, I’m doing a whole lot more of walking around my classroom and letting the kids learn,” she said.

Janet Tassell, assistant professor of teacher education at WKU, said she and other professors have pushed that concept during academy classes and seminars.

“Engaged doesn’t mean when I walk into a classroom, all students are sitting quietly doing their homework,” Tassell said, “but are they engaged in what they’re doing?”

Next year, teachers will help tutor and enhance after-school programs for children at the Housing Authority of Bowling Green, Tassell said. The effort is important because there’s a need for qualified math teachers and many students lag when it comes to math comprehension, she said.

“We know we can make a huge impact on the elementary level on creating [opportunities] for our students in learning,” she said, “and it’s an attempt to create more leaders … and knowledge in how to teach mathematics.”

The academy also stresses leadership and teachers are encouraged to present the material they’ve learned to other educators at their schools.

Rector said she has made presentations during a few professional development meetings “so I’m spreading the word in my building,” she said. “That’s been a big help for not only me, but my school as well.”