Making Math Relevant by Akash Kataruka

Making Math Relevant: SCI-MidAtlantic Holds Quantitative Literacy Conference at LaGuardia Community College

On October 10, 2014, over 30 mathematics educators from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania gathered at LaGuardia Community College – CUNY in Long Island City, New York to hear LaGuardia faculty members present stimulating discussions on how they teach mathematics and statistics using issues that are interesting, relevant, and real to the lives of their students. Attendees came from Gannon University, Guttman Community College, Hostos Community College, Hudson County Community College, Kingsborough Community College, LaGuardia Community College, New York University, Rutgers University, and The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

The day began with warm welcomes by Drs. Paul Arcario, provost and senior vice president at LaGuardia Community College – CUNY and Mangala Kothari, professor in LaGuardia’s Mathematics, Engineering, and Computer Science Department and also a Co-PI for the National Center’s Engaging Mathematics Engaging Mathematics initiative. Their welcome was followed by an overview of SENCER and other NCSCE initiatives by Drs. Monica Devanas (SENCER Co-PI and co-director of SCI-MidAtlantic) and Ellen Mappen (NCSCE senior scholar and SENCER-ISE director).

Dr. Kothari and others emphasized the importance of developing quantitative reasoning skills while offering challenging mathematics and statistics courses that enable students to see “how they can apply their scientific knowledge and methods that they learned in class to real matters.”

All of the presentations provided good examples of rigorous, quantitatively based instruction that looks at learning through complex and important civic issues. We are happy to present to you a summary of these presentations:

• Drs. Mangala Kothari and Milena Cuellar spoke about the Engaging Mathematics project at LaGuardia and how the team is developing a statistics course based on connecting mathematics, the environment, and society. Dr. Cuellar noted that one purpose of such a course was to have students “believe that they can do math.” The course will provide students with an opportunity to learn statistics by describing how it can be applied to civic and environmental issues.
• Dr.Prahba Betne, who helped develop the NSF proposal that led to the funding of Engaging Mathematics, and who is a member of the initiative’s advisory board, followed with a presentation on how to make tables and graphs found in standard mathematics or statistics textbooks more engaging and contextual without having to develop new materials. She provided examples and discussed how she leads the class in learning these concepts by communicating information through writing and presentations that imagine real-world work situations.
• Dr. Reem Jaafar discussed using a current piece of Congressional legislation “to build students’ civic engagement and mathematical knowledge.” In her Spring 2014 college algebra course, she focused on the efforts of Senator Elizabeth Warren to reform student loans. The students first learned about the broader issue; then about interest rates and polynomial fitting. Dr. Jaafar suggested that the model can also be used to teach pre-calculus.
• Dr. Alioune Khoule led an engaging discussion of applying the SENCER approach to learning about the slope of a line in an elementary algebra course. For the lesson, students are given the rating levels of ski runs and placed into groups to think about how to measure steepness. Students then develop their own formulas to share with the class before the slope formula is even introduced.
• Dr. Shenglan Yuan discussed promoting common sense and articulated reasoning in basic skills math, moving away from the view “that mathematics is just about numbers and formulas.” She found that “by investigating real life situations,” she could “encourage independent reasoning and common sense” to solve a problem.
• Dr. Frank Wang began his presentation by speaking about “The PQL Effect”. PQL (Project Quantum Leap) was originally funded by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. It applied the SENCER approach to the challenges of teaching basic skills education in mathematics. Through the grant, the LaGuardia faculty used environmental, public health, and business issues to teach basic algebra and statistics courses. Dr. Wang went on to discuss teaching through Bayesian reasoning, where students infer the probability of a cause (e.g., a medical issue such as cancer) from an observed effect (e.g., a positive mammogram). Dr. Wang suggested that his students developed better numeracy and understanding of probabilities when they used Bayesian models to examine evidence in real world examples.
• Dr. Sreedevi Ande ended the presentations by describing how to teach SPSS software from a “practical perspective” in a basic statistics course. Instead of just following the SPSS manual, students brought in data on an environmental issue of importance to them and then used statistical analysis to explain the data.

“The development of core mathematical concepts is the basic challenge in enriching quantitative literacy in our students,” says Monica Devanas. “Using contexts that are relevant for students helps them build on this core as well as extend and expand their understanding to more complex mathematical areas. The SENCER approach acknowledges that students engage in mathematical thinking through a variety of ways, and the projects of the NCSCE support this effective student-centered learning model.”

SCI-MidAtlantic will be hosting another meeting on November 15 at Barnard College titled “Teaching with Technology.” Registration for this meeting is free and open to the public. Click here to register. You can connect with the Engaging Mathematics initiative on Twitter at @MathEngaging, and with LaGuardia Community College at @LaGuardiaCC.

Photo credit: Akash Kataruka

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