Mathematics

Nearly a third of students change major within three years -- math majors the most

Graduates with math degrees fare well on the job market, but a greater share of students leave the major than any other, new federal data show. Are those students making a bad choice?

Michigan State drops college algebra requirement

Students at Michigan State University will no longer have to take college-level algebra, thanks to a revision of the general-education math requirement.

Debate over whether all undergraduates should take mathematics course

Wayne State University drops what has been part of its general-education program for all students, raising the question of which fields are needed by all undergraduates.

Popular lecturer at Berkeley will lose job despite strong record of promoting student success

Why is Berkeley getting rid of a popular mathematics instructor who seems to be achieving more student success than others without dreaded homework or quizzes?

Just how much math, and what kind, is enough for life sciences majors?

'Instrument of torture' or building block of understanding? UCLA and other universities debate how much math, and what kind, is enough for life sciences majors.

California community colleges' cautious experiment with accelerated remediation

Accelerated remediation starts to catch on at California community colleges, but might be slowed down by public university transfer policies.

Stanford professor goes public on attacks over her math education research

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Stanford professor goes public on attacks she has received over her work on mathematics education, and raises the question of the difference between "responsible disagreement and academic bullying."

Recommendations for making STEM education more diverse (opinion)

For decades, researchers have tried to boost the very low success rates of first-generation, low-income and underserved minority students in STEM education in college. Yet while more students from these groups have been entering colleges and pursuing STEM majors, the vast majority still are not earning STEM degrees. According to recent statistics, only 29 percent of Latinx students, 25 percent of Native American students and 22 percent of black students complete a STEM degree within six years.

Those students keep dropping out of STEM fields at a discouragingly high rate despite the fact many colleges and universities -- as well as foundations and national organizations -- have gone out of their way to fund and develop programs specifically to improve the retention of first-gen, low-income and underserved minority students in STEM. Campuses have experimented with a plethora of interventions, from robust summer bridge programs and first-year seminars to career counseling services and one-off workshops. Many institutions have undertaken curriculum and instructional reform, as well as offered students undergraduate research opportunities, tutoring, partnerships with learning centers and other support.

Yet attrition rates for such students remain high. Why has this challenge proved so pernicious and persistent -- despite the expensive and time-consuming efforts made to address it?

As researchers of STEM education and reform, we don’t think funding yet another high-priced program or creating a newfangled intervention will resolve the problem. In fact, we believe a solution actually already exists on our campuses -- but we’ve been blind to it because we work too much in our individual silos.

The solution is this: we need to work across units to create an integrated community of support for students. Instead of more programs and interventions, we need more connections between existing efforts -- especially between student affairs and academic affairs.

We made this discovery while studying the impact of a project called The California State University STEM Collaboratives, designed to provide immersive educational experiences to incoming STEM students on eight system campuses, with the goal to improve persistence and close achievement gaps. This project has developed integrated programs -- combining summer bridge and first-year experience programs with redesigned introductory STEM courses. It aims to bridge the traditional divides between student affairs staff and faculty members, with the goal to better support first-year STEM students both inside and outside the classroom.

For example, Humboldt State University put together Klamath Connection, a program that integrated several different initiatives: a summer immersion experience with fieldwork at the Klamath River, a first-year seminar course and linked redesigned courses in both STEM and non-STEM disciplines. The goal was to foster a sense of belonging for incoming underrepresented STEM students by helping them build relationships with peers, faculty members, administrators, the larger community around Humboldt and the natural world through the Klamath River.

The results of Klamath Connection were transformative. Not only did the program build a strong sense of belonging and community for students, it boosted student success rates significantly. Student persistence was 12 percent higher, and retention in STEM fields 14 percent higher, for students in the program compared to those in a control group.

First-gen, low-income and underrepresented minority students absolutely need support from faculty members in STEM and other academic leaders who can advise them on the right course sequences to take, help them address any gaps in educational preparation and connect them to undergraduate research, internships, field experiences and other important opportunities. But these students may be unfamiliar with college expectations, come from underresourced and inadequate high school environments, have significant work and family obligations, or need to cope with past and present trauma. They also benefit from the attention of student affairs staff members who recognize that students need validation and support in the face of these many additional hurdles.

What our research identified is the importance of academic and student affairs staff working together to develop interventions that use the knowledge that exists between both divisions and can help lead to STEM student success. Even more to the point, we found the specific support programs matter less than the integration of these programs. Linking the work of faculty members and student affairs professionals creates multiple touch points of support, strong personal and professional relationships, and an ongoing community that students can rely on as they encounter challenges. That’s something that single interventions, or even multiple disconnected interventions, typically fail to create.

At most colleges and universities, elements of first-gen and STEM student success programs are locked into separate silos that almost never connect. That means students who seek support from one unit or another end up getting only some of their needs met.

In short, our research shows that the problem of supporting first-gen, low-income and underrepresented minority groups in STEM fields is an organizational one -- not a programmatic one, as is typically assumed. Campuses need to reorganize their existing support programs and link them together -- yet few institutions have taken this important step.

The solutions to STEM student success already exist on our campuses. We just need to start working together to realize it.

Adrianna Kezar is a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and a co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education. Elizabeth Holcombe is a visiting research associate at the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University Bloomington and the managing director of the VALUE Institute.

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Diversity Newsletter publication date: 
Tuesday, January 15, 2019
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An Overlooked Solution for Diversifying STEM

Why higher ed needs new approaches to teaching math (opinion)

This fall, thousands of students across the country have come to campuses with excitement about being there but also some trepidation that they may not succeed. And when they leave next spring, many will have a particular feeling of accomplishment -- and perhaps a sigh of relief -- that can be exclusively attributed to passing the mathematics courses required for their degree.

I know this because I see it every year: students arrive on the first day of my class unconvinced that they’re even capable of acquiring the skills they need to pass. That deeply concerns me, and I’d banish the statement “I am not a math person” from my students’ (and society’s) collective vocabulary if I could. I reject this notion across the board, and I see it as an essential function of my job to disrupt this destructive mind-set. No one casually tells their peers, “I just can’t read!” Why should quantitative literacy be viewed any differently?

The fact is that too many students have been conditioned to feel resigned to or defeated by the belief they won’t be successful in math. They have struggled in the antiquated college algebra classes that do nothing to convince them of their competency or motivate them to learn the seemingly irrelevant content. Many students walk out of those classes questioning whether they’ll ever even make it to graduation, and it pains me to watch students fall off the path toward their degree because of it.

That’s why I see it as the most important part of my job to lead students away from misconceptions surrounding their competency in mathematics and to help them realize that they can think quantitatively and apply what they learn to their everyday lives. Imparting useful quantitative skills that help my students navigate life in today’s society is also what I find to be the most rewarding aspect of being a professor.

Luckily for me, my institution’s adoption of alternative math pathways has provided the forum and catalyst for such learning experiences to take place.

I think often of a nursing student I had in one of my classes, a woman who devoted countless hours and proverbial blood, sweat and tears toward mastering algebraic procedures. It pained me to watch her struggle for no real benefit, all the while knowing she would never need to use those procedures again. I also knew I had concepts I could teach her that would be really useful to her career and her life, but that they’d have to take a back seat to the existing required curriculum.

The game changer, for me and for her, was my college’s adoption of quantitative reasoning pathways. They’re aligned with real-world approaches to problem solving and designed to help more students grasp the material. The Quantway curriculum, developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is designed as a way for non-math and science majors to reach college-level quantitative reasoning without getting stuck in noncredit remedial courses or completing a traditional intermediate algebra course.

Put simply, the content I teach in these courses is far more useful in the real world than what a student would see in a traditional math class. We find new ways to challenge students with information that is both rigorous and relevant. A student studying office administration probably won’t be solving systems of linear equations, but they might instead need to understand how percentages and probabilities work. And it’s a much better use of a performing arts major’s time to develop statistical knowledge than to plug away at algebraic equations.

Once we adopted the quantitative reasoning pathway at my college, it was like a domino fell. It prompted crucial conversations among math faculty about what we really wanted students to do in our classes. It made us reconsider how we assess students, how we might need to adjust our teaching styles and how we should think about broadening, deepening and extending the mathematics a student learns in high school.

If our mission is to get students to think quantitatively and embrace problems that don’t have a clear answer, does it make sense to give them a closed-book, closed-note test to work on silently and individually? An essential component of what I’d consider problem-solving skills involves collaborating and using research to answer tough questions and determine where to get help.

That is how students solve problems in my Quantway classes. They communicate closely, working in groups, and form bonds with one another every day. They’re more reflective in their learning and able to articulate their thinking, and they come up with better strategies for how they approach difficult math problems. They’re willing to struggle, and in the process, they develop confidence as much as competence. I no longer see students reluctant to shout out an answer for fear it might be wrong.

One student, Paul, noticed the value of this kind of math class when he faced a challenging assignment a few weeks into the course. He told me, “I was about to send you an email saying I was stumped, but I didn’t -- I pushed through. Thank you for how you teach this class and for helping me think about approaching things in a different way.”

When students do make their way through their developmental and college level Quantway classes, they certainly appreciate the pathway that broke down the barriers to their college success. But they also truly recognize the value of their college math experience. Alice, a student who finished her associate’s degree and would go on to complete a four-year degree and start a career in human resources, told me, “I think applying concepts to real-life situations -- mortgages, car loans, GPA, etc. -- was what finally helped me understand certain concepts. Instead of simply telling me my answers were wrong, you engaged me in the thought process behind my answers. I truly appreciate that.”

Those are the actions and attitudes that help increase student success rates, and we’re seeing such results backed up with data. Cuyahoga Quantway students consistently outperform their peers in traditional remediation: in the 2015-16 academic year, we saw a 75 percent success/pass rate for Quantway students. By comparison, the national one-year success rate in a traditional development math course averages 29 percent. And perhaps most notable, when it comes to the number of students who enroll and stay in a course the entire semester, we frequently enjoy a 100 percent retention rate. It’s not uncommon for every single student who arrives to their Quantway class on the first day to be there at the end of the semester taking the final exam.

Colleges are noting of the impact of these pathways programs on student success rates, and the approach is rapidly growing in popularity. The Carnegie Math Pathways launched at 29 colleges in 2010, a number that has since climbed to more than 80 institutions nationwide. But while I’m encouraged by that growth, it represents just a fraction of the 1,000-plus community colleges in the United States.

Fortunately, Ohio has recently embarked on a push to create more pathways programs. Many math faculty members and administrators in our state agree that college-level quantitative reasoning courses are legitimate and that institutions should offer a college-level math class that doesn’t require intermediate algebra as a prerequisite. They know such pathways aren’t just somewhere you stop off as a detour on the way to calculus but rather routes to preparing students with meaningful learning opportunities relevant to their college, career and life goals.

I want the best for my students, my college, my state and the people who live here. I urge institutions like mine to prioritize adoption of alternative math pathways to give their students the best shot at success and a high quality of life.

Aaron Altose is an assistant professor of mathematics at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.

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Our nation needs better trained math and science teachers (essay)

Great teachers are vital to the success of our nation’s students. Teaching also happens to be one of the most rewarding vocations a person can pursue -- one that directly affects the next generation, fuels our economy and changes lives.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as thousands of students and teachers have returned to school. Just before the summer break, I visited North Elementary School in Morgantown, W.Va., where I observed students from West Virginia University teaching math to a class of bright fifth graders. Coincidentally, my daughter was enrolled in the first class attending North Elementary several decades ago, so the visit was especially personal to me.

During this lesson, students traced prisms to create sets of rectangles and then measured to find the total surface area. I joined student groups as they worked together as a class, with the teachers’ assistance, to find patterns in those calculations, which helped them derive the general formula to find the surface area. What stood out to me was how by coming to the formula on their own, the students helped solidify their understanding of the concept. That’s the kind of pre-algebra learning that happens when instructors bring passion and expertise to the classroom.

Research affirms that teachers who are knowledgeable about their content area -- particularly in science, technology, engineering and math -- are better able to instruct and inspire students. But too few of our nation’s STEM experts choose to apply their talents to this important career path. According to Change the Equation’s analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education, only 30 percent of eighth graders are taught math by teachers with an undergraduate degree in mathematics, and only 48 percent of eighth graders have science teachers who majored in science. This is a big loss. Excellent math and science teachers inspire and prepare students to become tomorrow’s technology innovators, enhancing our national security and burgeoning STEM industries.

The UTeach program, which began 20 years ago at the University of Texas at Austin, brings together universities, nonprofit organizations and private foundations to address the need for excellent teachers in STEM subject areas. UTeach encourages STEM majors to combine their degrees with secondary school teaching certification without adding time or cost. This removes a major barrier that keeps STEM majors out of the classroom.

UTeach helps students obtain both their STEM and teaching degrees as efficiently as possible. The program offers tailored course work, early classroom experiences and mentors to develop qualified teachers with deep content knowledge in science or math. STEM majors take classes such as Inquiry Approaches to Teaching, Classroom Interactions in Mathematics and Science and Apprentice Teaching, all of which prepare students to become better teachers and help ensure they are investing their efforts in a career that is right for them. And various program partners -- schools of science and education, as well as local school districts -- work together to ensure graduates are ready to meet the needs of their future students.

Today, with the help of organizations such as ExxonMobil, the National Math and Science Initiative, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, UTeach is flourishing at 46 universities across 22 states, with more than 6,500 students enrolled. I’m proud to count West Virginia University among that group.

WVU established WVUteach in 2014, thanks to a five-year grant from National Math and Science Initiative, via the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Housed in the WVU Center for Excellence in STEM Education, WVUteach is a robust partnership between the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education and Human Services. Students can also enter the program through the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.

Since its inception in 2015, the program has enrolled 143 students, and we look forward to graduating our first class in 2018. Those graduates, and those who will follow, cannot arrive soon enough -- West Virginia currently has 92 vacancies in K-12 math teacher positions alone.

Beyond filling those crucial positions with content experts, West Virginia has so much to gain in inspiring and preparing the next generation of STEM talent. With the average STEM salary in West Virginia paying $62,940, nearly double the state average for non-STEM careers, the potential returns are huge: if each graduate from WVUteach inspires even one student to pursue a STEM career, the increased revenue to the state will pay for the program many times over.

The UTeach Institute has been an effective partner in helping WVU implement our program. For universities interested in establishing a program on their campus, the UTeach Institute can help assess the institution’s capacity to implement the program and offer advice on funding it.

In that fifth-grade classroom at North Elementary, I saw our future innovators and teachers, and I take seriously our responsibility to prepare them today for tomorrow’s careers.

Now is the time to prepare every teacher and every student in every classroom with the math and science education they need and deserve. By 2022, almost 7,700 UTeach graduates will have taught more than four million students nationwide. WVU is proud to champion this proven teacher preparation model, and I urge fellow education leaders, policy makers and scholars to support programs like UTeach at every public and private university across our nation. The future is now, and our students need high-quality STEM teachers to lead the way.

E. Gordon Gee is the president of West Virginia University.

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