Pushing New Math Paths

Cadre of esteemed mathematicians gain traction in their campaign to remake the college curriculum in the discipline.

April 21, 2016

The M in STEM education, say many in the field, is lagging behind the other fast-evolving letters. Most universities are still forcing all their students through the same precalculus or college algebra courses. But demand is growing for nonmath majors with mathematical know-how relevant to their fields, and others, both in and out of STEM, often find their college math requirements to be an unsurpassable barrier.

“Math has been, I think, the single biggest obstacle to retention and completion,” William E. Kirwan, former chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. That, along with a host of other reasons (detailed below), is why he and a handful of other mathematicians are spearheading an effort to improve math education.

It’s called Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics, or TPSEMath for short. Kirwan and a core group of roughly half a dozen other mathematics and academic leaders are assembled under that acronym (pronounced “tipsy”) to find ways past the challenges in math education and bring the broader academic math community on board in adopting changes.

The group is only just now moving out of the information-gathering phase (What are the problems out there and how can we solve them?) and beginning to focus on bringing about the changes, so it’s too early to know whether the group can achieve its ambitious goals, which, briefly, involve changing the undergraduate curriculum at both the gen-ed and major level and transforming doctoral education in math

But a lot of people are on board. TPSE has financial support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and a number of heavy hitters in the field are attached to the project. Uri Treisman, founder and executive director of the Charles A. Dana Center at University of Texas, and Phillip Griffiths, an award-winning career mathematician, are both members of the core TPSE group.

Major mathematical organizations, like the Mathematical Association of America, have endorsed its goals and are helping in a variety of ways. An upcoming meeting of the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, an umbrella group of 17 professional societies related to math, is set to discuss ways its members can support TPSE’s efforts.

What’s Wrong With Math and Why

“There’s a growing sense in the community,” said Ron Rosier, director of the conference board, “that we need to really improve what we’re doing and become much more of an open door rather than a roadblock or filter for people trying to get into professions that demand math.”

TPSE formed in the wake of two prominent reports -- one from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the other from the National Research Council -- calling for reform in math education. Both covered a variety of issues, but the former found undergraduate math education for nonmath majors wanting, and the latter said the major itself needed improved ties with other disciplines.

“One of the reasons I think math faculty have not been as eager to jump on movements that promote a much more applied approach to mathematics is that people don’t become mathematicians because the subject is very useful,” Rosier said, making clear that he was speaking for himself, not his organization. “They become mathematicians because they love it and want to do it.”

“The passion of most mathematicians is mathematics itself, and the reason that the rest of the world likes mathematics is because it’s incredibly useful,” he said. “It’s a question of getting many more mathematicians to adopt the point of view that they’re of great service to the rest of the world.”

Various subgroups of college mathematics also have their own cultures and primary values, Rosier said. Departments in two-year colleges tend to focus on teaching above other concerns, for example, whereas statisticians “are probably the most outgoing, oriented to the real world.” That, on top of the unique cultures of different universities and departments, impedes widespread change.

What Is TPSE Doing?

The group has focused its attention on a few central issues.

The first, where the most progress has been made, is finding a way to keep all undergraduate, lower-division math students from being funneled needlessly through one or two standardized prerequisites. The solution, pushed by TPSE and already in place in a growing number of universities, is to add “pathways” for nonmath majors that include subjects more directly relevant to their field.

“Math departments have been unresponsive to the needs of mathematical skills required in other disciplines,” Kirwan said. “Why force people through precalc when there’s plenty of wonderful stuff that’s relevant to their needs?”

The group also advocates for adding similar pathways in upper-division courses, likely involving partnerships with separate departments, to better prepare math grads for careers after college. For nonmath majors this might mean statistics courses for nursing or criminal justice majors and game theory for economists. In both cases the idea is give students better access to the kinds of mathematical knowledge they’ll need in the future.

But for the very reason math departments are seen to have been slow evolving, TPSE may encounter resistance trying to push broad reform. “Department chairs are the key actor in this,” Griffiths said, calling them the “middle management” between the administration and their own departments.

The hope is that by bringing them together, and with the collective weight of the broader math community behind it, TPSE will be able to spur faster change.


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