MAT degree evolves to meet needs

Jared Vitosh (right) helps a student in algebra class at Norris High School. Vitosh earned his MAT degree in August 2012.

UNL graduates Jared and Jason Vitosh both teach high school mathematics in Nebraska. Both hold a Master of Arts for Teachers from the UNL Department of Mathematics. The two brothers from Odell, Nebraska, took Math 809: Mathematical Modeling for teachers together. Both agreed that their favorite course has been Math 806T: Number Theory and Cryptology. However, the comparisons stop there.

Their journeys to earning their graduate degree took diverse paths. Jason earned his MAT degree from the mathematics department, back in 2006, driving “to campus five days a week for 10 weeks each summer for four summers to take classes during the regular summer sessions,” the teacher at Falls City High School explained.

Jared, on the other hand, completed his degree in 2012 and was privy to taking courses that emphasized “mathematical knowledge for teaching” in their current summer format – one course for 40 hours a week or two half-day courses over two weeks.

“I was much more connected to other students and professors than Jason,” said Jared, a teacher at Norris High School. “He kind of helped pioneer the program, but that meant he took a lot of graduate classes when there were not many others taking the same courses.”

As part of its commitment to being a leader with respect to the mathematical education of teachers, the department offers courses that lead to the MAT to any certified mathematics teacher who wants to earn a content-rich master’s degree. First developed with the support of an NSF grant in the 1960s, the MAT now offers two tracks, one for secondary mathematics teachers and one for middle level teachers that offers a specialization in the teaching of middle level mathematics.

With the support of several NSF grants over the course of the past decade, faculty in mathematics have developed 17 mathematics courses for K-12 math teachers that stress the development of mathematical knowledge for teaching. The Department also partners with the Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education and Statistics departments to aid them in development and offering of courses for K-12 teachers working on master’s degrees.

The NSF Math Science Partnership Institute grant, Math in the Middle, resulted in 115 Nebraska teachers earning the MAT degree between 2006 and 2011. As part of the institutionalization of the Math in the Middle grant, the Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education (CSMCE) developed the Nebraska Math and Science Summer Institutes (NMSSI) program to continue to offer the courses from Math in the Middle to more teachers. To further support the program, the university offers Nebraska teachers a 20 percent tuition discount on NMSSI courses taught in-person.

“The way the courses are developed specifically for teachers and with teachers for their own growth and improvement as classroom educators makes the entire experience useful to your career,” Jason Vitosh said. “After I finished my degree, I felt like I had the permission and the right to consider myself a knowledgeable and experienced expert in my field. I was confident that I was doing the right things in my classroom, for the right reasons and for my students.”

The subsequent NSF grant, NebraskaMATH, aided the NMSSI in allowing teachers to be able to continue to take math and pedagogy courses each summer and to pursue the MAT degree. Over the past two years, 27 teachers have earned the MAT degree.

“I encouraged Jared to begin his MAT as soon as he could make it work,” Jason Vitosh said, who is also a Noyce Master Teaching Fellow through the CSMCE. “The session format had changed to short one- or two-week courses with all-day instruction. He also was able to get in on some of the new programs like the New Teacher Network from the NebraskaMATH grant. I missed out on making connections with peers like Jared did, but through the Noyce fellowship now, I have been able to see how powerful and helpful those connections can be.”

The Vitosh brothers, whose father also was a math teacher, enjoyed the connections to tangible, real-world applications in Math 806T, their favorite course. It was also the only course Jason got to take in the one-week format.

“I loved the intense focus that came from doing nothing but studying one topic 24/7. I devoured the content and read about a dozen supplemental texts that week,” Jason said. “I was extremely honored to be asked to teach the same course two summers ago on campus. I was able to reconnect with the content in a different way as the instructor and share my excitement for the subject with my peers in the class.”

Currently, three years after the NSF Math in the Middle grant ended, 68 Nebraska math teachers are actively pursuing their MAT degree and because of recent partnerships with the OPS and LPS school districts, between 27 and 60 additional teachers are expected to apply to the MAT graduate program over the next year.

A more recent initiative is to offer these courses online for teachers both in Nebraska and across the country. In partnership with Nebraska Online, the mathematics department is committed to offering online coursework for mathematics teachers that would enable a teacher to earn the MAT degree completely through online coursework. While the online program is too new to have a graduate yet, it is worth noting that a discrete mathematics class for teachers offered in Spring 2014 attracted 25 teachers, and 29 total teachers are taking two online courses in Fall 2014, so the demand exists.

Since 2005, 17 faculty members in the Department of Mathematics have taught a mathematics course for teachers organized by the CSMCE, and 61 mathematics graduate students have been part of an instructional team for one of these courses (by the end of Summer 2014).

Jim Lewis, as director of the CSMCE and PI of the aforementioned grants, has had a prime role in the department’s education efforts. For details on the MAT program contact Dr. Wendy Smith, wsmith5@unl.edu, or to see a list of the teachers who have graduated with a MAT since 2010, visit: http://scimath.unl.edu/csmce/mat_ma_degrees.php.

Jason’s advice for teachers who are interested in earning a MAT is simple.

“Do it now,” he said. “Don’t wait another year; get started. Take one class, then take another. Make it work. It will change you and your teaching forever.”