David M. Bressoud October, 2008
To the many people who responded to last month's survey: Thank You! The response was overwhelming. At the time I am submitting this column for posting online, we have had 565 responses. The message came through very clearly that we need such a study to determine what factors within the context of calculus contribute to attracting students to mathematics, encourage their persistence through calculus, and ensure that they have the mathematical preparation needed for their intended major. Over five hundred respondents offered to participate in this study. It will be Fall of 2010 at the earliest before the study is ready for implementation, but it is good to know that there is such high interest. For anyone who has not yet responded, the survey will remain open until mid-October and can be accessed at www.maa.org/Surveys/TakeSurvey.aspx?SurveyID=mlLK8m3.
I have another survey for this month, now looking to identify the long-term issues toward which MAA should be focusing its attention. This survey is available at www.maa.org/Surveys/TakeSurvey.aspx?SurveyID=n2LL7n2 and will be open through the month of October. This survey is part of the MAA's strategic planning around STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematical sciences) issues. The survey consists of three questions with many options. The first asks you to identify the three most important issues to you and to your department from among those that we have identified.The second and third questions get at issues of communication. The second lists many of the reports and resources that the MAA has made available and asks which have you used frequently, occasionally, or not at all. The third question asks where you go for information when you are teaching a course for the first time or when you want to find ways of being a more effective teacher.
MAA is now in the third of three cycles of strategic planning that began in 2005, a process of identifying opportunities and challenges that will face this organization over the next decade. The first cycle consisted of three groups that looked at Revenue, Professional Development, and the American Mathematics Competitions. These recommendations have been made, and we are well along in the process of digesting and implementing them. The second cycle had three groups looking at Students, Governance, and Membership. Those recommendations also have been made. Some have been implemented. Others are undergoing study and debate by the relevant committees. The third and final cycle—before we step back to review the entire process and how it should be continued—consists of four groups studying Meetings (chaired by Betty Mayfield), Periodicials and Communications (chaired by Paul Zorn), Sections (chaired by Nancy Hagelgans), and STEM Issues (chaired by myself). The STEM Issues Strategic Planning Group began its work this past January. Its other members are Kai Campbell, Jim Daniel, Michael Dorff, Susan Forman, T.J. Murphy, Michael Pearson, Harriet Pollatsek, Ed Scheinerman, Dan Teague, Hank Warchall, Bill Watkins, and Betsy Yanik.
Our charge is to look at what MAA can do to highlight and encourage change to better serve all students who take mathematics, to develop curricula that will attract students to take more mathematics and better prepare them for whatever comes after graduation, and to encourage more students, especially those from under-represented groups, to study more mathematics. The charge includes the suggestion that the accomplishment of these goals might be furthered by “new models of stronger major programs, innovative interdisciplinary programs, and attractive terminal master’s programs.” It should be kept in mind that our charge is not to determine what colleges and universities can or should do, but rather to look at how MAA can be a more effective agent for identifying, promoting, and assisting needed changes.
Our group has identified four major areas that we feel need attention: Communication: How effective is MAA in getting information about the teaching of undergraduate mathematics out to its members? Articulation: What should MAA be doing to illuminate and provide guidance concerning the problems of articulation between high school and college and between 2- and 4-year colleges? Teacher Preparation and Support: What should MAA be doing by way of providing guidance in teacher preparation and in promoting collaboration betwen high school and college teachers? Measurement and Assessment: What should MAA be doing to promote research in undergraduate mathematics education, to collect and interpret data, and to help departments and individuals with assessment at all levels?
Within these areas, there are several big questions. And we are very aware that there are important issues that do not fit within these four catgories, but of which we do not want to lose sight.
Communication. With the exception of terminal master’s programs, there is nothing in the charge that the MAA is not already doing on many different fronts: recommendations, reports, curricular materials that range from Classroom Notes to textbooks, workshops, discussion groups, and presentations at meetings. What is not clear is how much effect this activity is having. The MAA is a collective pool of tremendous expertise. The challenge is and always has been how to identify, organize, and share this expertise. Do our members know what is available, and can they find it when they need it? What do our members need as they think about how to teach a course or revise a curriculum? What can the MAA do to make this information more readily accessible? How can we more effectively impact the mathematical community that extends beyond our own membership?
- How effective are the MAA’s recommendations (as contained, for example, in Guidelines for Programs and Departments in Undergraduate Mathematical Sciences, Curriculum Foundations Project, and CUPM Curriculum Guide 2004), and what could be done to better disseminate them?
- What resources that are or could be provided by the MAA are most helpful when planning a course? When revising a curriculum?
- What can be done to make it easier to organize and access this information when and how it is needed?
Articulation. The most critical juncture within the undergraduate curriculum occurs in the first year as students make the transition from high school to college. A good mathematical experience in this year is key to preparing students for all of the STEM disciplines, and, arguably, for whatever direction they choose to pursue in college. The problems run the gamut from students who arrive unready to do college-level mathematics to those who arrive with Advanced Placement credit but who cannot find the right course that will engage them and entice them toward the further study of mathematics. Particular attention will need to be paid to engaging students from under-represented groups, as well as to the use of interdisciplinary programs.
The other big articulation issue to which MAA should pay more attention involves the transition from 2-year to 4-year institutions. This includes both prospective majors in the mathematical sciences and those who intend to take courses with mathematical pre-requisites.
- What are the big issues concerning mathematics for first-year college students at your institution (e.g. placement, college algebra, success in calculus) and what are the major obstacles to success?
- Does your institution experience problems at the 2-year to 4-year college transition, and if so, what is the nature of these problems?
Teacher Preparation and Support. One of the greatest and most important challenges to undergraduate math programs lies in providing the appropriate mathematical training for future teachers: high school, middle school, and K-8. What to teach these prospective teachers, how to teach it, and how to measure whether they have achieved the level of expertise needed to be effective teachers are questions we are far from answering. The MAA has an important role to play here.
While the MAA should not recommend what or how to teach in the K-12 curriculum, it does have a responsibility to work much more closely with K-12 teachers and their organizations, especially in encouraging working relationships between college and K-12 faculty and in providing workshops and materials that develop teacher knowledge of mathematical content.
- What guidance from the MAA would your department most appreciate with regard to teacher preparation?
- What should the MAA do to promote greater collaboration between K-12 and college faculty?
Measurement and Assessment. This is a very broad category. It ranges from research in undergraduate mathematics education, through the collection and interpretation of data that illuminate who our students are, to questions of assessing what our students know and how well prepared they are for the next step in their education or career.
The MAA has a role to play here in helping math departments collect, reflect upon, and act on this information both to improve what happens in the classroom and to effect broad institutional changes in programs and in the allocation of resources.
- What would you like to see the MAA provide in terms of research on undergraduate mathematics education, educational data, and assistance with assessment?
- What should the MAA be doing to assess and evaluate its own effectiveness?
Other Issues. There are other critical issues that lack the broad scope of the four categories described here. To some extent, they can be subsumed under these categories, but they also extend beyond the categories. First is the need to encourage and support students from under-represented groups. The first year of college mathematics is particularly critical for these students, but the need for attention to the encouragement, care, and nurturing of these students extends beyond the first year.
Second, interdisciplinary programs are and will continue to be an important focus for the MAA. They have a critical role to play in re-envisioning the first-year experience, but they also must be part of the vision of the entire undergraduate experience.
Third, the development of stronger major programs, both interdisciplinary and traditional, is a continuing issue before the MAA.
Finally, terminal master’s programs constitute the one topic from the charge that seems unrelated to the four broad categories that we have identified as needing attention. Nevertheless, it is an issue that can and should be considered by the MAA.
- What are the big STEM issues that have not been listed and toward which the MAA needs to direct increased attention?
I and the other members of this committee welcome your comments on how MAA can be a more effective agent for identifying, promoting, and assisting needed changes. To help manage what I hope will be a flood of email, please use the Subject: October Launchings in your email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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David Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and president-elect of the MAA. You can reach him at email@example.com. This column does not reflect an official position of the MAA.