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Designing Effective Math Learning—With or Without the Math Department

Fifty years ago, when university mathematics department chairs were surveyed about whether math should be a graduation requirement, only 15 percent said yes. Today, math requirements—sometimes referred to as “quantitative reasoning requirements”—are the norm at universities across the country.* 

 At many institutions, it’s been understood in recent years that students in the humanities, social sciences, and arts should be able to take courses such as statistics or data science, instead of traditional offerings such as precalculus or calculus. Political science and psychology departments have long offered their own statistics courses, for example.

What’s newly emerging is the degree to which even faculty in STEM disciplines—where the need for a math foundation is not questioned—want to tailor their students’ math preparation to their disciplines. In some cases, they are even taking control of those courses, in frustration over what they see as the inflexibility of the math departments. Such disputes tend to be counterproductive, as I noted in my recent piece for Scientific American: 

Math learning is fundamental to all STEM fields, but the opposite also appears to be true: the STEM fields may be central to making math learning effective for more students. Involving other STEM disciplines in redesigning math classes is a key way to ensure those classes offer engaging and inclusive on-ramps to STEM. 

In fact, in 2012, President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology called for “a national experiment in postsecondary mathematics education to address the math preparation gap” to include new college math curricula developed and taught by scientists and engineers. With or without math departments, that is exactly what some science and engineering departments are doing. 

Three examples of how STEM departments are dodging battles with math faculty were on display last week at a Mathematical Sciences Research Institute panel I had the privilege of facilitating. Professors from life sciences, engineering, and computer science shared how they have successfully redesigned the math requirements for their majors to meet their students’ educational needs—with no contribution from their institutions’ math departments (and, in some cases, with outright opposition). 

Nearly a decade ago, for example, UCLA life sciences faculty asked the campus’ math department to revise the calculus course that was being offered to life sciences majors at the time. The math department declined, in part based on concerns that the desired changes would weaken students’ math skills, leaving them ill-prepared for subsequent classes. The opposite turned out to be the case, according to recent peer-reviewed research also highlighted in the Scientific American piece: Students in the newly developed course subsequently earned “significantly higher grades” in their physics, chemistry, and life sciences courses than students in the original version of the course. 

To address a similar problem, a different model has been spreading among engineering departments. Rather than modifying calculus courses themselves, the approach—pioneered by Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio—is to add a new, contextualized math prerequisite course for entering freshmen. The course emphasizes problem-based learning and prepares students for subsequent classes in both math and engineering by focusing on “engineering motivation for math.” 

Students are still required to take a traditional math sequence, but they are able to take it later in their programs, due to slight modifications to the engineering curriculum. At Wright State, the strategy has led to a doubling of the average graduation rate of students, with even greater gains for female, Black and Latinx students. 

Also seeking new approaches to math education are computer science departments. A new department launched a few years ago at Occidental College in Los Angeles adopted a workaround approach—designing its own math course after the math department wouldn’t modify the content of some of its courses or reconsider its three-course calculus prerequisite for linear algebra and discrete math. 

“We had to develop this wiggle zigzag path around math,” department chair Kathryn Leonard said. “We had to on-the-down-low remove calculus because the math department … was unwilling to work with us within their own coursework to make courses that worked for us.” 

Leonard, a Ph.D. mathematician who serves as president of the Association for Women in Mathematics, bears no animus toward the math department, noting how devoted the faculty are. Instead, she says, she feels sad as a mathematician that the two departments weren’t able to find common cause. 

“I love math,” she said. “It makes me sad, because the risk to the math department is so small. The risk is so low to being flexible on these things, and yet the risk on the other side is so high: whole groups of people who just never make it through.” 

Still there is hope that research, such as that highlighted above, showing the efficacy of the new approaches will convince math departments of the benefits to modifying math curricula for students who don’t aspire to become mathematicians. Alternatively, the popularity of such approaches could get the attention of math departments in another way—by jeopardizing their enrollments. 

*For more on the history of general education math requirements, see my 2015 report Degrees of Freedom: Diversifying Math Requirements for College Readiness and Graduation.

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