Chronicle of Higher Education on TPSE Math

4-Part Plan Seeks to Fix Mathematics Education
by Dan Berrett
April 10, 2016
(Original here. Reprinted with permission.)

Math is a stumbling block for many students, and instruction may be part of the reason why.

Introductory math courses that serve as gateways to majors in science, technology, engineering, and math can be stultifying bores, a presidential council has said, leaving students "with the impression that all STEM fields are dull and unimaginative."

The council’s members have even suggested assigning faculty members from physics or computer science, for example, to teach the subject. Meanwhile, according to a recent critique, math curricula overemphasize abstract subjects like trigonometry and calculus over more-practical ones, unnecessarily demoralizing students and costing the nation human potential.

Many of the field’s leaders acknowledge that math teaching needs to be overhauled. Five disciplinary groups proposed improving curricula and teaching in the first two years of undergraduate math. Nationally, many faculty members are developing promising approaches, but those don’t often go beyond their campuses.

That’s where a relatively new player comes in: Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics. The proj­ect is looking not to reinvent the wheel, but to coordinate existing efforts, promote what works, and bring solutions to scale. Five years old, it has the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the endorsement of the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, an umbrella group of 17 professional societies.

"There is a need for reform, no question," says William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland, who is a mathematician and the proj­ect’s senior adviser. "Math has been, for whatever reason, the one STEM discipline that hasn’t taken a serious look at what and how it teaches at the undergraduate level."

The broader swath of students now attending college underscores the need for change, says Phillip A. Griffiths, an emeritus professor of math at the Institute for Advanced Study and another leader of the proj­ect, which is known as TPSE. For less-prepared students, the subject’s relevance and applicability need to be made clear. They want to know, he says, "What’s this stuff good for?"

That question is not top-of-mind for many mathematicians, who pursue the discipline because they find it beautiful, says Ronald C. Rosier, director of the Conference Board. Math instructors are starting to realize that their students seldom share that passion. "They’re taking it because it’s important to other things they’re studying," he says.

And if professors once viewed attrition as a badge of honor, they can’t now. "The math community has to come to grips with the fact that its role has changed," Mr. Kirwan says. "It’s not to be a filter anymore. It’s to be a facilitator."

Mr. Griffiths and Mr. Kirwan recently visited The Chronicle to describe their group’s work and its four main fronts.

1. MAKE MATH RELEVANT

Instead of calculus or precalculus as the default entry-level math course, new options could teach students how to use math in subjects that interest them, Mr. Kirwan says. In an increasingly data-driven world, opportunities abound. Aspiring social scientists and journalists can study statistics. Economists could learn game theory, political scientists mathematical modeling. That approach is underway at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, whose director, Uri Treisman, is part of the TPSE proj­ect.

"The idea," says Mr. Kirwan, "is that there ought to be an entry-level course that is relevant for every student at the institution."

That said, traditional curricula aren’t going away anytime soon. While change may be upsetting to some professors, Mr. Kirwan thinks this form of it will be welcome. "There’s really an opportunity here to broaden the impact of the discipline."

2. EXPERIMENT IN THE CLASSROOM

Professors at community colleges, liberal-arts institutions, and research universities have experimented with new approaches. Shifts in remedial education in particular have attracted attention. A pilot study of 1,000 students in Tennessee showed pass rates doubling when remediation was folded into credit-bearing math courses.

Elsewhere, many courses have been flipped, meaning that students watch lectures outside of class and then spend class time with their instructors working on problems. Tools like adaptive learning might also help, Mr. Kirwan says. All are examples of innovations the group wants to study, catalog, and promote.

3. RETHINK GRADUATE EDUCATION

Mathematicians are trained to do research, not necessarily the day-to-day teaching they actually end up doing. "It’s great playing with prime numbers," says Mr. Griffiths, referring to the abstract world that occupies the minds of many professors. "But that’s not sufficient."

Collaborative efforts to train future professors in effective teaching methods already exist. The Delta Program in Research, Teaching and Learning is a network of 25 research universities that has identified graduate education as a fruitful stage to change how STEM disciplines are taught.

4. WORK THE SYSTEM

"It really helps to have big shots in the research community to say this is important to do," says Mr. Rosier, of the Conference Board. Mr. Griffiths, a National Academies member who is credited with devising the theory of variation of the algebraic Hodge Structure, is a heavyweight in the field.

It also helps to have a higher-education network. Mr. Kirwan, a longtime administrator, has sought out partnerships with the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, as well as the National Association of System Heads. Those groups, he says, can convene large numbers of provosts, presidents, and deans. He and his colleagues are reaching out to department chairs as well.

For Mr. Kirwan, the effort offers a chance to return to his discipline and to try to make a difference. "There’s a national calling here," he says, "to get this issue addressed."

Dan Berrett writes about teaching, learning, the curriculum, and educational quality. Follow him on Twitter @danberrett, or write to him at dan.berrett@chronicle.com.