Department, CSMCE place priority on teaching issues in Nebraska

NMSSI Geometry 2011

Across the nation, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and its Department of Mathematics are known for their cooperative efforts between mathematicians and mathematics educators to improve mathematics education.

The department has taken the stance that issues related to mathematics education, whether it's the education of K-12 students, undergraduates or graduate students, are important for mathematicians to consider. There is a strong correlation between the mathematical education of students today and the availability of mathematics capable of advancing the field in the future. Despite this correlation, mathematics departments that value contributions to mathematics education are more the exception than the rule at research institutions.

The Mathematics Department's commitment to teaching and educational issues has not gone unnoticed. In 1998, the department was the recipient of two important awards: the University of Nebraska's university-wide (a four-campus system) Department Teaching Award, and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, administered by the National Science Foundation. These and other awards were followed by a series of NSF grants, now totaling more than $20 million, for work partnering the Department of Mathematics, the Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education, and K-12 schools in Nebraska.

Also of note, the March 2011 issue of "Notices," the monthly periodical published by the American Mathematical Society, focused on issues related to mathematics education, and two of the seven related articles were authored or co-authored by faculty from UNL's math department.

Much of the effort from the department focuses on bridging UNL and K-12 schools through resources and grants coordinated by the Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education (CSMCE). Although the groundwork for a "center" was first laid in the late 1980s, the work of the center gained momentum in 1991, when mathematics professors Don Miller, Jim Lewis and Mel Thornton received a $4.47 million mathematics and science Statewide Systemic Initiative grant, which they were able to increase to $10 million by 1993. In 1995, the university continued to fund the CSMCE's efforts to bridge K-12 schools and the university into the next decade through Programs of Excellence initiatives Math and Science Teachers for the 21st Century (2002) and NU-Teach (2009).

Now, with support from UNL's Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Human Sciences, and Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, the mission of the CSMCE is to support UNL faculty engaged in educational activities focused on improving the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at both the K-12 and collegiate level. The CSMCE supports a broad range of activities from outreach programs for K-12 students to professional development opportunities for graduate students.

Lewis, Aaron Douglas Professor of Mathematics, is the director of the CSMCE and has been the principal investigator for the prestigious NSF-funded grants Math Matters; the Math and Science Partnership programs Math in the Middle and NebraskaMATH; and NebraskaNOYCE, part of the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program.

Lewis was honored on Oct. 22, 2011, at the Enacting Standards for Mathematical Practices (ESMP) Conference (see sidebar) at UNL, for his 40-year career contributing to mathematics and mathematics education.

"Jim's work has had an extraordinary impact on the lives of a very large number of students, teachers, professional mathematicians, mathematics teacher educators and many of the leaders in the profession at the national level," said UNL Department of Mathematics Chair John Meakin. "His work matters and he has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on mathematics education at all levels at UNL and on the national stage."

The department and CSMCE's NSF grants funding teacher education have worked to improve student achievement in mathematics across the state of Nebraska. Some of the more prominent grants include:

  • Math in the Middle Institute Partnership, 2004: Five-year, $5 million grant (with two $900,000 supplements) that was a partnership among educators at UNL, Lincoln Public Schools (LPS), Omaha Public Schools (OPS), and Nebraska's rural Educational Service Units (ESU), offered a two-year graduate program focused on improving middle-school student achievement in math and developing intellectual teacher-leaders who would affect change within their schools, districts and ESUs. In all, 170 teachers participated in the institute with 157 of them earning master's degrees.
  • NebraskaMATH, 2009: Five-year, $9.2 million NSF Targeted Math-Science Partnership to support a partnership among UNL, LPS, OPS, Grand Island Public Schools, Papillion-La Vista Public Schools and Nebraska's ESUs. The partnership works to educate and support students and teachers at critical junctures, continuing the goal of improving achievement in mathematics for all students. Department alums Michelle Homp and Wendy Smith are NebraskaMATH's program manager and research coordinator, respectively.
  • NebraskaNOYCE, 2010: Six-year, $3 million Robert Noyce NSF grant supporting the Master Teaching Fellowship and the Teaching Fellowship. The Master Teaching Fellowships support the leadership development of 24 outstanding master teachers in high-need Nebraska schools, and the Teaching Fellowship provides talented STEM majors and professionals with an opportunity to become secondary mathematics teachers in high-need Nebraska schools.
  • Developing a Coherent Picture of Mathematics Teaching and Learning, 2011: Three-year, $1.2 million NSF Research, Evaluation and Technical Assistance (RETA) grant to study the development of statistical models for analyzing relationships between mathematics teaching and learning and for interpreting student and teacher data in statistically productive and meaningful ways.

For more information about these and other grants, visit http://scimath.unl.edu.

While these grant-funded programs go a long way to improve mathematics education in Nebraska, the Nebraska Math and Science Summer Institutes (NMSSI) is the CSMCE's effort to expand opportunities for mathematics teachers at all grade levels using local dollars.

"While we are pleased with success we've had in obtaining grants, teaching is the largest profession in the nation so there is still more work to be done," Lewis said. "In order to continue supporting mathematics teachers in Nebraska we are seeking corporate and private donations to help cover the costs of quality professional development and graduate education."

In Summer 2011, the NMSSI offered one- or two-weeklong courses for mathematics teachers in nine locations around the state. Teachers enjoyed reduced tuition from UNL and additional fellowships were available to cover the remaining tuition. In Summer 2012, the NMSSI courses will expand to 10 locations in Nebraska and will continue to offer financial assistance.

The CSMCE also coordinates outreach efforts through the mathematics department, including All Girls / All Math, IMMERSE and the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics, programs outlined in the previous edition of Math News.

Since 2004, 13 faculty members and 47 graduate students from the UNL Department of Mathematics have taught or assisted with a course through Math in the Middle, NebraskaMATH, NebraskaNOYCE and the NMSSI. Nine faculty members from neighboring institutions have also served on instructional teams. Their support has been instrumental in the level of success achieved by these grants.

But the collaboration has been mutually beneficial. Graduate students have found the experience of teaching teachers to be very valuable. Many want to participate on an instructional team for a summer course for teachers and report that their experience was viewed by potential employers as a real plus.

For some, the experience has shaped the path of their careers. Christina Eubanks-Turner, who earned her Ph.D. from the math department in 2008, credits her opportunities to work with K-12 schools and teachers here at UNL with her current success in her position as Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

"The experiences I had as a graduate student have been invaluable to my career. In graduate school, when I found out about the work being done with the public schools it motivated me to work hard to successfully complete the requirements for the Ph.D. program. I knew I could one day start similar effective programs in the communities I so deeply care about," Eubanks-Turner said. "Since becoming an assistant professor in 2008, I have been a principal investigator on six externally funded education and outreach grants that focus on mentoring of undergraduates and professional development for teachers."

Faculty members also value the experience working with K-12 teachers. Mathematics Professor David Pitts, who taught the Noyce Master Teaching Fellows in the summer of 2011, said, "Teaching the Noyce fellows was my first chance to experience working with in-service teachers. I came away humbled by the experience and hopeful that they will affect real change in the schools in which they work."

- Lindsay Augustyn, Outreach and Communications, UNL CSMCE