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Ohio college professors trying to develop math courses that inspire

By Mary Mogan Edwards The Columbus Dispatch Published: May 17, 2017 3:25 PM

Ohio's college math teachers are aware of the bad rep: Math often is blamed for driving students away from science and engineering majors or out of college altogether.

Thing is, though, they not only love math for its own sake, they're also passionate about its importance to a life well lived, no matter how one makes a living. So they want to fix it.

Jim Fowler, an assistant professor of mathematics at Ohio State University, likes to call math "the Hogwarts of the modern world — we're teaching people to be magicians." But he knows not all undergraduates see it that way, so he has a leading role in the Ohio Math Initiative, an effort by college-level instructors across the state to reform both what is taught in undergraduate math courses and how it's taught.

The fact that everybody needs math doesn't mean that everybody needs the standard beginning college algebra course, reformers maintain — a course in which, according to a 2015 scholarly report by several math professional societies, half of students got a D or F.

Scholars participating in the initiative are developing alternatives: along with the traditional track for students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors, they're creating one focused on statistics and another on quantitative reasoning, in which math concepts are used to solve problems in many different academic disciplines.

Ohio's work is attracting national attention. Uri Treisman, a math professor and head of the Charles A. Dana Center, a research center for math and science education at the University of Texas at Austin, said it has been featured at national meetings and that at least 10 other states are emulating it.

He praised the Ohio Department of Higher Education for convening the reform group and putting faculty members in the driver's seat. "In my 45 years of work in the mathematics community, I've never seen such a constructive working relationship between governance officials and rank-and-file faculty," he said in an email.

Quantitative-reasoning courses allow students to use math to solve problems they care about solving. They might use modeling, Fowler said, to explain something such as the tracking and predicting of infectious-disease spread, or how a viral news story might spread, based on the shape of a social network.

David Kish, an OSU master's-degree candidate in mathematics, wrote his thesis on developing a quantitative-reasoning course. One exercise he wrote is based on a well-known prank from 2009 in South Africa. An IT company, frustrated with the slow speed of the country's biggest Internet carrier, instead sent data via a carrier pigeon carrying a memory stick. (The pigeon won handily.)

Figuring the whimsy of the problem might catch students' fancy, Kish in his exercise asks them to imagine re-enacting the pigeon project, considering factors such as how much one pigeon can carry. "I wanted to get them to ask themselves the questions about what variables we need to look at," he said. "What if we use more pigeons? Hopefully it's a sort of interesting and entertaining problem."

Beyond the problem with introductory algebra, Fowler is appalled that, for many non-STEM majors, the final math class they're required to take "might be called 'pre-calculus,' and that is just offensive," Fowler said, because that's a course designed to lead into something else. A student's "terminal math course," he said, "should be final. It should celebrate all the math they've learned, deepening and expanding on their high-school courses."

Along with offering a different kind of math content to non-STEM majors, the reformers believe the style of teaching should change, too, including for STEM students. They're encouraging instructors to build "active learning" into their classes. That's when, rather that absorbing lectures and laboring alone on worksheets of problems, students are put in pairs or groups to solve problems.

It emphasizes having students explain the problems to each other and defend their answers. "If you as a student have to convince a fellow student that your answer is correct, you have to think about your answer in a different way, and hopefully that might unlock a bit more understanding," Kish said.

Fowler thinks relieving the tedium of traditional math classes could keep more talented people in STEM majors. "A lot of the people who are switching out of STEM, they got an A in calculus," he said. "But for some reason, they didn't see the beauty of it."

And for the business or history or communications major, a more-engaging math class could impart valuable skills, Fowler said.

"It makes the class not just about computation but about the communication of mathematical ideas," he said. "It's the ability to persuade with numbers or data. They might want to convince somebody to do something based on numbers that they'll see in their lives."


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