LaGuardia Community College to Host October 10 Meeting

October 10, 2014
LaGuardia Community College
“SENCER and Engaging Mathematics”

9:00 registration, breakfast, networking; 9:30 – 3:00 program with luncheon included

Learn more about the growing community of faculty who find SENCER ideals as successful principles for mathematics instruction. This is the basis for the newest NSF-funded initiative of NCSCE – “Engaging Mathematics.” Cindy Kaus of Metropolitan State University, Mangala Kothari of LaGuardia Community College, and Frank Wattenberg of the United States Military Academy are co-PIs with partners at Augsburg College, Normandale Community College, Oglethorpe University, and Roosevelt University. Co-PI Mangala Kothari is hosting this meeting at the center of SENCER-inspired developmental math curriculum reform, LaGuardia Community College, home of the “Quantum Leap” Project. LaGuardia faculty and others will present their innovations in math courses that use civic issues to make math more relevant to students.

To register for the event, please click here. There is no cost to register. All are invited and encouraged to share and present their SENCER initiatives at this meeting. To submit presentations, contact Monica Devanas at

Wm. David Burns (NCSCE)

SIGMAA QL and SENCER: Perfect Together—Reflections on QL’s 10th Anniversary at MAA’s Summer MathFest

David Burns
Executive Director, NCSCE

Back in February, I received an invitation from Andy Miller, a professor of mathematics at Belmont University and current past chair of the Mathematical Association of America’s (MAA’s) “SIGMAA” on Quantitative Literacy (SIGMAA QL). Andy asked me to participate in a panel to celebrate SIGMAA QL’s 10th anniversary to be held at MAA’s Summer MathFest, from Aug 6-9 in Portland, OR.

Victor Donnay of Bryn Mawr, an author of a SENCER model on differential equations and social justice and a member of our Engaging Mathematics advisory group, had recommended that Andy invite me.

Andy probably didn’t need too much persuasion from Victor to include the work of our National Center and SENCER in his panel, given that he lists one of his principal academic interests—beyond “hyperbolic dynamical systems”—as “curricular development that focuses on quantitative literacy and on issues that lie in the intersection of mathematics and social justice.”

I’ve been fascinated by something called the Mathematics Genealogy Project, so it should not have come as a surprise to me to discover that Andy’s own academic background intersects so neatly with some of the brightest stars in SENCER’s own math community: Andy’s undergraduate degree is from Wartburg, now home to Mariah and Brian Birgen, and his PhD is from Berkeley, where Dave Ferguson, a SENCER co-PI, also did his work. Indeed, when I arrived at MathFest fresh from our SENCER Summer Institute, the first person I encountered at the registration desk was Mariah, who mentioned that this was only the second SSI she had ever missed (once for a baby and this one because of a big anniversary celebration for parents on the West Coast). But I digress…

I accepted the invitation to be on the panel to spread the word about SENCER and our new Engaging Mathematics project, of course. Mostly, though, I relished the opportunity to join in the celebration of an idea: that numeracy and quantitative literacy really do matter! Indeed, along with Lynn Arthur Steen whose work on quantitative literacy and democracy has influenced my thinking and all my fellow SIGMAA QL panelists, I believe that increased capacity to engage competently in “mathematical” and “probabilistic” discourse is absolutely central to the welfare of our democracy.

In a recent chapter I wrote at the invitation of Chris Arney of West Point on behalf of COMAP, I claimed:

When we think about complex contested civic questions, as often is not, the arguments and claims made about these questions are made in mathematical or probabilistic terms. The vast majority of the predictions that we hear being made about various civic challenges require some modeling activity in order to arrive at a the point where one can make a credible prediction. What makes a predictive model good or bad is something we all ought to know, at least at some basic level…For undergraduates, the capacity to understand modeling and to be able to interrogate claims made on the basis of modeling would seem to me to be essential tools for effective citizen engagement in a democracy. And, of course, as Mark Twain famously observed, statistics have always been used and misused in the public sphere. As mathematics and statistics education become more critical, connecting teaching in these fields to real life questions represents the best opportunity we have for both improving learning and increasing the comfort that math averse students may feel about mandatory study involving numbers.

In his invitation to me, Andy wrote: “We think that [your] program fits very well into the civic context and critical thinking approach taken by many QL courses and programs, and one theme of our reception this summer is where QL is going, so the current officers of SIGMAA QL would be interested to hear your thoughts on QL as it relates to the Engaging Mathematics program or the goals of SENCER as a whole.”

For the celebration, Andy had assembled a terrific group of presenters and panelists, so, for me, as the “outsider,” this was an opportunity to get to listen to some of the leaders in American higher education who have put QL on the map and are working still to get it into and across the curriculum. They didn’t need my help, certainly, but we in the SENCER community can surely benefit from theirs.

I will mention briefly a few key points my fellow panelists made. Mostly, though, I will use this occasion to provide some ready references and links to some of the ideas and resources that the panelists recommended.

Dorothy Wallace of Dartmouth noted that there are two big dimensions in the American experience that argue for greater attention to QL: civic literacy (related to democratic practice—the focus of so much SENCER work) and financial literacy (related to our prosperity and the fact that we live in a particular kind of economic system). Focusing on this latter dimension, Dorothy explained the importance of QL as it relates to understanding our economic and financial systems. She mentioned the “Financial Literacy Initiative” at Dartmouth College as a systematized application of QL. According to its website, the initiative:

…advocates a quantitative approach to financial literacy for college students, K-12 students, future teachers and adult learners. The initiative supports this approach through contextually rich curriculum modules for classroom use, short video presentations for faculty development or classroom discussion, and case studies.

You can access these materials here.

Dorothy is also an editor of the journal Numeracy. The most recent issue of Numeracy has several articles of interest to the SENCER community. You can access them here, including a piece by Dorothy on “Strategies for the Spread of Quantitative Literacy” that rather neatly appropriates predictive models from graph theory and biology. Thus, not only does she make an argument for QL, she demonstrates something useful and powerful about multidisciplinarity.

I first heard fellow panelist Bernard Madison’s name from Karen Oates a long time ago. It was a special pleasure for me to meet him at MathFest. I recall Karen’s reporting on a talk “Bernie” gave in which he mentioned that a shockingly high percentage (I can’t recall precisely how high) of American college students were unable to calculate the number of square yards of carpeting needed for any given room. Bernie would be the first to admit that measuring carpet was hardly the chief reason for promoting QL, but it might be a place to start!

Back in the 1980’s, Bernie directed the seminal project “Mathematical Sciences in the Year 2000: Assessment for Renewal in U.S. Colleges and Universities” for the National Research Council in Washington, DC.

The issue of assessment still intrigues him and occupies his time. This fall, for example, he has been invited to address a meeting of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (ACS WASC), one of six regional accrediting associations in the United States. He will help WASC think about how one would assess QL across the undergraduate experience. (I invited him to share this presentation, after he gives it, with our community.)

A main point I took from Bernie’s remarks at the panel was a strong plea to not dilute the idea of QL by letting it degrade into just another set of “operations” that students ought to know how to perform. I believe he was arguing—as did so many of his colleagues—for keeping a focus on context, on relevance, on significance, and not just on being able to do equations or perform operations.

As the QL community reflects on what it has been able to accomplish, Bernie suggested that it ought to think hard about just what constitutes a community of practice, a matter of interest to our Engaging Mathematics partners, who are thinking about the very same question. We’ve thought a lot about this in the SENCER community as well and have tended to be inclusive and embracing of diversity, as opposed to holding a strict standard of what constitutes “eligibility” to call what you do SENCER work. This has its risks, of course, but it also has its rewards: it opens up the possibility for a “movement” to grow.

I am not sure what Bernie would say about the conclusion I reached from listening to him, but it occurred to me that working backwards from assessment might be the strategy that is needed to determine who is doing QL, as opposed to “pre-qualifying,” as it were, folks as QL practitioners without regard to the outcomes they achieve. If you would like to spend a few minutes listening to what Bernie has to say about QL (this from a Quantway and Statway Summer Institute), you can access a video here.

Caren Diefenderfer of Hollins University, another of Andy’s five panelists, also had some very interesting things to say about QL. Caren sees very broad application for the QL movement. This is not surprising given that her current work involves the connections between music and mathematics. She “investigates the Pythagorean scale and its relationship to the equal temperament scale.”

I took from her remarks not just a strong argument for putting the products of serious QL learning and activities in the service of community needs, but a strong belief in using QL to empower students, as opposed to miring them in the experience of disempowerment that often attends to math study by math-averse students.

Caren’s goal for students is to improve their problem-solving skills and developing the “habits of mind” to know what you need to take from the mathematics classroom to enable you to do something important. She makes the point that the math is often not especially sophisticated, but what is sophisticated is the ability to apply (“transfer”) it to the specific challenge at hand (be it an interpretation of laboratory results for a medical diagnosis or a proposal to change a tax law).

You can hear Caren on this topic in this short clip, also from the Quantway and Statway Summer Institute.

Complementing Caren’s central focus on what she would probably term “student centered” development, Rick Gillman, assistant provost for faculty affairs and professor of mathematics at Valparaiso University, stressed the importance of faculty development, as central to building a community of practice for QL, on campus.

Rick’s academic interests “include quantitative literacy and mathematical modeling of phenomena that we see in the world around us, particularly graph theory and game theory.” As assistant provost, however, he has interests in improving the quality of teaching and supporting learning through promotion of good pedagogy. One such promising pedagogy is undergraduate research and for students.

Rick sees the value of QL for a variety of community partners and others—as part of student learning, the promotion of civic engagement, and the fulfillment of the general responsibility of higher education institutions. Rick is a board member of MAA and another long-time partner/leader in the QL “movement.” He edited Current Practices in Quantitative Literacy and contributed a case study on assessment to the collection. You can find out more about his work and review a number of case studies here.

I am grateful to Andy for inviting me to speak, and was honored to participate in this anniversary panel. I look forward to working with Andy again in the future, as well as with Linda Braddy, the deputy executive director of the MAA, and others at the organization who will support the Engaging Mathematics initiative through dissemination of curricula and other materials.

For more about MAA’s SIGMAAs and the QL SIGMAA in particular, here are descriptions taken from MAA website:

The SIGMAAs program establishes and supports communities of colleagues who share a common interest that advances the MAA mission. Within these communities, members gain access to opportunities for networking, professional development, and discussion of issues relevant to the represented interest. In addition to enhancing interactions among their members, SIGMAAs facilitate interaction between their members and the greater mathematics community by providing resources and expert knowledge relevant to their special interest. – See more here.

The Quantitative Literacy SIGMAA QL aims to provide a structure within the mathematics community to identify the prerequisite mathematical skills for quantitative literacy (QL) and find innovative ways of developing and implementing QL curricula. We also intend to assist colleagues in other disciplines to infuse appropriate QL experiences into their courses and hope to stimulate the general national dialogue concerning QL. See more here.

Article originally published September 10, 2014.

Cathy Evins and Barbara Gonzalez present their plans for college algebra during SSI 2014.

Engaging Mathematics Partners Engage in Collaborative Planning and Meet Others Interested in Their Work

SSI 2014 marks the second time the Engaging Mathematics partners came together as a group since the project’s kick-off meeting in January of this year.

On the second day of the Institute, project Co-PI Cindy Kaus led a work session called “SENCER Mathematics Across the Curriculum.” The session attracted an interdisciplinary audience, which was indeed the goal—”My title worked!” Cindy proclaimed at the session’s start, after asking how many in attendance were professors of a subject other than math.

During the session, project members and session attendees gave short presentations about the interdisciplinary civic issues within their courses. The slides from the partners’ presentations are available as an online resource.

Other presentations given by Engaging Mathematics faculty during SSI included:

  1. A concurrent session by Barbara Gonzalez (along with SENCER Leadership Fellow Melanie Pivarski) on creating and implementing student-generated Calculus II-based projects;
  2. A concurrent session by Mangala Kothari and Milena Cuellar on creating a community of practice through connecting math, the environment, and society; and
  3. A poster presentation by Barbara Gonzalez and Cathy Evins outlining their multi-step plan to enhance college algebra.

The Institute also provided opportunities for the partners to meet as a team. During these meetings, partners were able to pose questions to the group, discuss topics relevant to the project, and plan for the project’s next steps. A few outside parties joined these meetings, and expressed enthusiasm about creating Engaging Math-style courses of their own.

We are eager to see the progress made by our partners this fall after a productive Summer Institute, and welcome others who are interested in combining mathematics education with interdisciplinary civic issues to contact our partners for more information. You can also connect with the project on Twitter at @MathEngaging.

Article originally published on August 14, 2014.


Oglethorpe University’s Carillon Magazine Features Engaging Mathematics

Carillon Magazine, published by Oglethorpe University, featured an article by Debbie Aiken called “TEACHING BACKWARDS” in their Spring/Summer 2014 issue. The article describes the Engaging Mathematics project, the SENCER method, and how Dr. John Nardo and Dr. Lynn Gieger, Engaging Math partners and Oglethorpe professors, will work to enhance Great Ideas of Modern Mathematics, a core course that every Oglethorpe student takes, for the grant.

To learn more about how “teaching backwards,” a phrase coined by Dr. Gieger, helps students engage with and learn math, please read the article below:

Download (PDF, 1.1MB)

Thanks to Debbie Aiken and Oglethorpe University for the wonderful write-up. You can follow Debbie on Twitter at @superduperdeb, and Oglethorpe at @OglethorpeUniv.

Photo credit: © 2008 Richard Johnson, resized image used, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Engaging Mathematics Partner to Speak at 7th Annual Flux Course

Engaging Mathematics partner Dr. John Zobitz of Augsburg College will be giving a talk at the upcoming Flux Measurements and Modeling course at the Colorado Mountain Research Station, near Boulder.

The Flux Measurements and Modeling course is an annual two-week course for graduate students, postdoctoral students, and early career scientists. Course topics include measuring leaf-level and ecosystem-scale carbon dioxide and water fluxes, predicting biosphere-atmosphere fluxes from satellite observations, and incorporating measured fluxes into mathematical models. The first week of the course is focused on measurement and instrumentation. During the second week, course participants apply ecological models to analyze data. Participants are expected to complete a practicum and present results at the end of the second week.

Dr. Zobitz’s talk is called “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Data Assimilation.” It will provide a (gentle) mathematical introduction to Bayesian approaches to modeling with data.

To learn more about the two-week flux course, view this short video. You can connect with Dr. Zobitz on Twitter @ProfZobitz.

Article originally published on July 15, 2014. Photo credit: © 2008 Richard Johnson, resized image used, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Engaging Mathematics Faculty Partners Cathy Evins and Barbara Gonzalez

Roosevelt University Uses Chicago’s Social Justice Issues to Teach Algebra

NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics initiative is dedicated to applying the SENCER approach to mathematics courses, with the goal of making the subject more accessible and interesting to students.

Roosevelt University’s math professors Cathy Evins and Barbara Gonzalez will develop a new algebra course that couples math instruction with important social justice challenges in the city of Chicago, including transportation, crime, water, food access, infrastructure, and demographics.

The course will be “flipped,” meaning that students will learn basic algebra skills outside of class, and then spend class time applying those skills to word problems. Eventually, Evins and Gonzalez plan to split the course into two versions: one for STEM majors and the other for business majors. Throughout their course development, they will track the writing process and note their sources of data and information so that educators based in other cities may use these resources as a model to create similar classes at their own institutions.

Roosevelt University’s press office recently published a description of Evins’ and Gonzalez’s planned course. To read the release, please click here, and be sure to follow Engaging Mathematics on Twitter @MathEngaging for updates on our other partners.

Article originally published June 17, 2014.


The Summative Successes of Dr. Victor J. Donnay

Congratulations are in order for Dr. Victor J. Donnay, who has not only been named the William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair of Mathematics during Bryn Mawr College’s recent commencement ceremony, but has also appeared on G-town Radio’s talk program “Science 2.0: Science for the Rest of Us” on May 24.

During the radio interview, Dr. Donnay discussed how math relates to environmental sustainability. In case you missed the live stream, or just want to hear it again, you can listen to a recording of the program at Podomatic.

Dr. Donnay currently serves as an advisory board member for NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics initiative. His Ordinary Differential Equations in Real World Situations course was selected as a SENCER model in 2008. We are proud to have him in the SENCER community, and are pleased to extend our congratulations on his most recent achievements.

Article originally published June 4, 2014.

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LaGuardia Community College Works to Close “Math Gap”

According to a 2006 U.S. Department of Education study, the earlier in their undergraduate careers that students, regardless of their majors, take college-level math, the more likely they are to graduate. For community colleges, where the majority of entering students place into pre-college math, this finding poses significant challenges, especially considering that because the failure and dropout rates for pre-college math courses are high, many community college students never take college-level math at all.

To close this “math gap,” LaGuardia Community College, one of the lead institutions for NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics initiative, launched Project Quantum Leap (PQL). 

With FIPSE funding and support from the LaGuardia Center for Teaching and Learning, PQL math faculty are adopting the SENCER method to improve math education at the pre-college level.

“PQL aimed for improving the pass rates and retention in basic skill math courses,” Engaging Mathematics partners and LaGuardia professors Mangala Kothari and Milena Cuellar explain. “Students often find math as uninteresting and irrelevant to their lives. The SENCER approach allowed PQL to create the material for students relevant to their interest and use it in class to teach the abstract ideas in context to civic issues, making the subject more interesting and meaningful.”

Kothari, who is also a co-principal investigator for Engaging Mathematics, has already developed a PQL module called “Pollen Count Levels and Allergies.” She says the module helped her demonstrate to students the connection between mathematics and the real world. “The activity,” she explains, “provided students an opportunity to learn mathematical models and their applications and, at the same time, allowed them to enhance their understanding of pollen counts and related health problems of allergies.”

Another existing PQL course covers elementary statistics in the context of energy and the environment. The course uses projects to review material covered in class. For Engaging Mathematics, Kothari and Cuellar plan to introduce similar projects into a new elementary statistics course focused on social and environmental concerns. Their course will be divided into three modules related to common issues of New York City, such as the city’s inequalities; housing, redevelopment, and environmental issues; and the stop-and-frisk practices of the NYPD.

Kothari and Cuellar are currently working on selecting data sources and case studies appropriate for their student population and course theme. They will offer the course in spring or summer 2015. In December 2015, they will publish a teaching manual for the course to the web.

The LaGuardia faculty leaders hope that in the future the activities they develop will not only be shared with other Engaging Mathematics institutions, but will also be imported into non-STEM courses to strengthen student learning and interest in math by connecting course topics to locally diverse civic issues.

For updates on Kothari and Cuellar’s course developments, check future issues of the eNews, and be sure to follow the Engaging Mathematics initiative on Twitter @MathEngaging.

Article originally published by Christine Marie DeCarlo on May 21, 2014.

© Copyright 2013 David Levinson “Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed”

Sustainable Scholarship

Dr. Rikki Wagstrom first offered a SENCER math course at Metropolitan State University, a lead institution for NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics initiative, in the fall of 2008. At the 2006 SENCER Summer Institute, she noticed that most SENCER courses were science courses. This inspired her to SENCERize a math course, Metro State’s Math 101, by integrating it with sustainability issues. Her course design was informed by the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). SoTL encourages instructors to research how their teaching methods affect learning and then publicize their findings, helping to advance both the teaching and learning aspects of education.

“Using a SoTL approach forced me to think strategically about the course design,” Wagstrom says. “I knew I wanted to integrate sustainability topics into the Math 101 course, ultimately to investigate the impact on student learning. So I considered from the very beginning what aspects of student learning I was interested in studying and immediately developed preliminary assessment instruments. Having these end targets in my mind helped me focus, structure, and revise the curriculum. My SoTL work made me much more aware of the relationship between how I approach new topics and what students actually learn. By regularly evaluating my students’ work in conjunction with the SoTL project, I discovered how they made sense of the topics they were studying. I would then revise the curriculum in light of their experience and backgrounds, and outcomes subsequently improved.”

Another influence on Math 101’s SENCERization was Kennesaw State College’s Earth Algebra course, which teaches college-level algebra through the context of global warming. Earth Algebra was the result of a FIPSE-funded project. The principal investigators for the project conducted a study of the course’s effectiveness, and found that the civically centered curriculum caused students to make gains in both their views toward mathematics and their abilities to perform data analysis and mathematical modeling, while obtaining no less significant knowledge of algebra than students in traditional courses.

Dr. Wagstrom also conducted a study of her Math 101 course, but did so without the benefits of funding and collaborators, as the Kennesaw study had. Her results showed that integrating sustainability issues into her course was as effective at building students’ mathematical skills as a traditional algebra course, and often better. Additionally, it increased students’ confidence with, and interest in, the subject. An article describing Dr. Wagstrom’s research was published in the Summer 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed Science Education and Civic Engagement: an International Journal, and a detailed account of her study also appears as a chapter in Doing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Mathematics.

The observed student-learning gains from Dr. Wagstrom’s Math 101 course led her to receive a Center for Teaching and Learning STEM grant from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to expand her earlier work by creating a Math 102 course called Mathematics of Sustainability. This course counts for both a general education and college algebra credit, and covers mathematical topics from environmental, social, and economic perspectives.

Before she packages Mathematics of Sustainability into a teaching manual, which will be published online in December 2014 as part of the Engaging Mathematics initiative, she intends to add a two-part activity on monarch butterflies and a two-part activity on wind energy that will explore both the science and financial viability of the energy source. She would also like to develop a curriculum related to ocean acidification.

In addition, Dr. Wagstrom plans on creating new resources for a Calculus II course that will teach students to model such topics as energy consumption, population dynamics, economic multipliers, the case for buying local, and debt. She will begin developing the curriculum for this course during the fall 2014 and spring 2015 semesters. The course will be offered in spring or summer 2015, and packaged and published online by December 2015.

For updates on how Dr. Wagstrom’s course developments progress, check future issues of the eNews, and follow Engaging Mathematics on Twitter @MathEngaging to stay informed about the rest of the project.

The photograph above is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0. It appears here in its original form. © Copyright 2013 David Levinson “Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed”

Article originally published by Christine Marie DeCarlo on May 8, 2014.

seychelles beach 1

Environmental Statistics Across Continents

For NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics initiative, Dr. Cynthia Kaus of Metropolitan State University, one of the project’s co-principal investigators, will develop two versions of an Environmental Statistics course: one to be offered at Metropolitan State in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the other at the University of Seychelles, where Dr. Kaus was recently appointed as a Fulbright Scholar.

Even though the two versions of the course will be taught in different locations—indeed, in different hemispheres—Dr. Kaus plans two strategies to unify her efforts. First, she will design the courses to cover the same mathematical material. For the first year at least, the mathematics will be at the introductory level. In future iterations, Dr. Kaus plans to collaborate with a statistician to raise the complexity of the content for more advanced students at the junior and senior levels. Secondly, both the US and the Seychelles courses will be structured around a common environmental issue and theme, the use of wind farms.

Dr. Kaus hopes to have students at both Metro State and the University of Seychelles use wind experiment kits to gather data on wind farm efficiency and other variables that could help inform policy and practice, as well as improving the functionality of wind farms in both the Seychelles and St. Paul. The kits are manufactured by KidWind, a nonprofit organization located in St. Paul. She also plans to utilize web conferencing software, such as Skype, to facilitate communication between students at the two universities, so they may share their data, project results, and presentations.

Dr. Kaus anticipates offering these new courses in the spring of 2015. Subsequent course iterations will also be organized to allow students to work with local organizations on projects of environmental importance. For updates on how her courses develop, check future issues of the eNews and follow the initiative on Twitter @MathEngaging.

Article originally published by Christine Marie DeCarlo on April 24, 2014.


Normandale Community College: A Place Where Students “See” Math

In our last issue, Normandale Community College’s Mathematics for the Liberal Arts was identified as a course that aims to inspire students to appreciate the mathematics that surrounds them, the mathematics that is hidden in plain sight. According to Normandale Professor Anthony Dunlop, the ultimate goal he envisioned while designing the course was “to have students think of math whenever they are near Minnesota’s many waterways, and to have at least an inkling that mathematics and quantitative reasoning [are] vital to understanding and protecting these resources.”

The analysis of real data from the nearby Nine Mile Creek Watershed District serves as the instructional framework for Dunlop’s course. Although he has used this framework the three previous times he’s taught Mathematics for the Liberal Arts, he is eager to expand the course into new areas, and expressed excitement that participating in NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics initiative, which encourages professors to apply the SENCER Ideals to their curricula, will afford him this opportunity. One way he plans to expand the course is by developing new modules. These modules will cover topics such as wildlife management, energy production and use, and water table depletion and replenishment. In keeping with the “math you can see” theme on which his course largely operates, new energy modules will be based on data from a coal-burning plant visible from the Normandale campus. Dunlop states that this “math you can see” way of teaching helps students realize that math is more than “pointless symbol pushing.” After taking his course, students “might still dislike mathematics,” Dunlop says, “but they can no longer claim it’s remote and abstract.”

Dunlop also plans to bundle his course materials into a portable curriculum, so that anyone, at any institution, might teach Mathematics for the Liberal Arts. When asked how he plans to make his course transferable to institutions where the Nine Mile Creek Watershed and coal-burning plant are not “visible,” Dunlop replied that, while he still needs to do further planning in this area, one possibility is to offer the course’s questions and activities as templates, allowing instructors to fill in spreadsheets with data from their own surroundings, which will help ensure all students get the chance to “see” math.

Professor Victor Padron, another member of the Normandale faculty, will also be developing modules for the Engaging Mathematics project. His work will focus on undergraduate research in the areas of groundwater pollution and climate change. Padron’s modules will be transferable into any standard-sequence calculus course. These courses are taken mostly by STEM majors, who, Dunlop says, “are not necessarily interested in mathematics.” He hopes the SENCER approach of combining civic issues with instruction will pique his students’ interest in the subject.

Padron taught a groundwater pollution module once before, during the Fall 2013 semester, as part of Calculus with Linear Algebra and Differential Equations. The module’s research projects require students to apply various calculus techniques as they track both the flow of groundwater and the fate of its contaminants. Padron aims to further develop this module by inserting new examples and exercises, expanding MATLAB accessibility, and developing additional support for instructors.

When asked how MATLAB models help students engage with visually elusive groundwater, Padron replied:

The fact that we are modeling a complex event that is out of sight as ground water makes it necessary to use mathematical models that the computer brings to life. Typically when dealing with data from real events of groundwater pollution, one cannot obtain analytical solutions to the equations involved. A software like MATLAB allows us not only to obtain numerical approximations to the solutions but also to visualize the results, bringing an unseen phenomenon to the surface.

Padron’s model on climate change, another less-than-tangible topic, currently exists only as an initial sketch, but will also include mathematical models. Understanding Earth’s climate requires an understanding of mathematics, Padron states, adding that, “while controlled physical experiments on climate change are rarely available, mathematical models, computational experiments, and data analysis are the fundamental tools” for studying Earth’s climate system.

The White House also sees value in modeling climate change, as evidenced by the recent launch of a new website— The site aims, as the New York Times reports, “at turning scientific data about projected droughts and wildfires and the rise in sea levels into eye-catching digital presentations that can be mapped using simple software apps,” in the hopes that people will more readily engage with the issue after learning from models how climate change could affect them directly. Padron’s models will be conceptual, formulated in terms of mean temperature and thermal energy exchange among latitudes. Although these parameters retain only some fundamental features of the climate system, “they are capable of reproducing relevant complex phenomena with a relatively simple mathematical formulation that is well suited to the undergraduate level of mathematical education,” he explains.

For insight into the direction this module may take, browse the Mathematical Association of America’s November 2013 issue of the College Mathematics Journal, which Padron cites as an important starting reference. To stay abreast of the rest of Dunlop and Padron’s advancements, be sure to follow @MathEngaging on Twitter.

Article originally published by Christine Marie DeCarlo on March 28, 2014.


Modern Mathematics: Oglethorpe University’s Great Idea

Game, graph, knot, number, and set theory—probability, finance, topology, infinity, and logic: these are a few major mathematical developments that have emerged since the time of Sir Isaac Newton.

Oglethorpe University’s Great Ideas of Modern Mathematics (GIMM) course offers students the chance to delve deeply into three of these recent developments, a chance most English, business, or anthropology majors never get during their undergraduate careers, a chance typically reserved for those majoring in math and science. GIMM, however, is a general education requirement at Oglethorpe, meaning the entire student population, with the exception of those enrolled in the University’s Evening Degree Program, completes the course before graduating. Consequently, the names of approximately 25% of Oglethorpe’s students fill GIMM rosters each year.

GIMM may be well established, but it is anything but rigid or formulaic. In fact, flexibility and experimentation are central to the course’s structure. While every iteration of GIMM covers topics in both probability and formal logic, the third topic is left to the instructor’s discretion.

For NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics initiative, Oglethorpe’s Professors Lynn Gieger and John Nardo plan to align both GIMM’s existing probability module, and other modules yet to be created, with the SENCER Ideals. A key component of the SENCER Ideals involves using civically important topics as frameworks for instruction. Because, as Gieger notes, GIMM is very popular among health science majors, some of these new modules may explore the efficacy of mammograms, pregnancy tests, and drug tests.

Gieger and Nardo also plan to collect survey data from this Spring semester’s GIMM students. Surveys will measure whether students believe mathematics can address real-world problems and will gauge which mathematical topics students find interesting. Survey results will then be used to inform module development, which Gieger and Nardo aim to complete during the Fall 2014 semester. In the Spring and Fall 2015 semesters, they plan to field test, analyze, and revise the modules.

The potential for Gieger and Nardo’s modules to engage students, especially students who do not have a natural interest in mathematics, is supported by the recent popularity, or infamy, of a Numberphile video about infinite sums. The video discusses how, by the use of mathematical tricks, the sum of 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 and on to infinity could equal negative one-twelfth—a problem familiar to mathematicians and physicists before the video’s release, but certainly not to the general public, as evidenced by the video’s comment section. Over 1,800,000 people have viewed the video since its January 9th debut—it even caught the attention of the New York Times—making the case that, if only people knew about the sorts of topics modern mathematics explores, which are many of the same topics covered in GIMM, interest in the subject would, effectively, go viral. Applying SENCER ideals to modules stands only to augment GIMM’s already substantial potential to engage its students.

Though Gieger and Nardo recognize that a course like GIMM may well be unique to Oglethorpe, they believe that their modules will be transferable to at least one course at most institutions. Normandale Community College’s Mathematics for Liberal Arts, which is also being enhanced as part of the Engaging Mathematics initiative, could be one such course. As its title indicates, Mathematics for Liberal Arts is designed for students pursuing liberal arts degrees. Ideally, by the end of the course, after they have studied how mathematics pertains to the local environment and other topics of interest, these non-math majors will have gained an appreciation for the mathematics that surrounds them, hidden in plain sight. Gieger and Nardo hypothesize that modules developed for GIMM could, with minor adaptations and alterations, successfully be incorporated into Normandale’s course.

Increasing non-math majors’ appreciation for the subject is also a main goal of incorporating issues of civic importance into GIMM’s modules. As Gieger explains:

For many of our students, this is their only exposure to mathematics at the college level, and those students in particular tend to be very skeptical about the practical value of mathematical study. Framing modules in this course through the SENCER structure has a great potential to help these students see why mathematics is both beautiful AND useful.

And is not that the best anyone could hope for, being seen as both beautiful and useful? For updates about the status of Gieger and Nardo’s modules, as well as for information on the rest of our faculty’s progress, follow us on Twitter @MathEngaging.

Article originally published by Christine Marie DeCarlo on March, 13 2014.

Photo credit: Stephen Geffre

Abroad Approach to Calculus

Studying abroad—is it even an option for math and science majors? Professor John Zobitz of Augsburg College believes that it should be, and is designing a projects-based calculus course for NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics initiative with this belief in mind.

“Because STEM coursework is highly structured,” Zobitz says, “many students [majoring in a STEM field] cannot make study abroad work.” He explains that his new calculus course will address this issue by integrating travel into the curriculum, making trips relevant to what his students are learning.

The inspiration for the course comes from Zobitz’s own experience abroad. In the spring of 2012, during Augsburg’s spring break, Zobitz, along with fellow math professor Tracy Bibelnieks, led seven math students to Nicaragua. The group spent most of their time at the Fair Trade Certified™ GARBO Coffee Cooperative, located in Peñas Blancas (Spanish for “White Rocks”). Though relatively unknown to tourists, the area, located in northern Nicaragua, boasts geographically interesting and visually arresting white cliffs, as referenced by the town’s name.

At the time of the group’s visit, GARBO was planning to open their family-owned farms to eco-tourists. Eco-tourism would not only generate additional, more stable revenue for the Cooperative, it would also allow GARBO’s women and youth to play a more active role in the community, since they would be responsible for preparing food and managing lodging for guests.

Zobitz and Bibelnieks used GARBO’s interest in eco-tourism as the instructional focus for their week abroad. Students worked with the two professors, as well as with Cooperative members, to model the expenses and profits associated with hosting visitors at GARBO. On the last day of the trip, students presented the results of their study to the Cooperative, suggesting possible enhancements that tourists would enjoy, and recommending investment priorities to the Cooperative’s members.

The benefits of the trip were mutual. Students who may have felt that rigorous course loads excluded them from studying abroad were given the opportunity to travel without having to delay graduation, while members of the GARBO Coffee Cooperative were provided with mathematically sound suggestions for developing eco-tourism. The Cooperative’s women also gained a larger decision-making role as a result of the trip, since students sited the significant contributions women would make by hosting visitors.

Zobitz will let Nicaragua’s specific issues inform project themes for his new calculus course, and will continue bringing his students to the GARBO Coffee Cooperative. The new course’s design and structure, however, will be translatable to other contexts and countries. This transferability will allow Engaging Mathematics’ partners to adapt Zobitz’s curriculum for their own classrooms, based upon their own interests and travel preferences.

By spring of 2014, Zobitz will have discussed curriculum development with his colleagues in Augsburg’s mathematics department. In summer of 2014, he will begin creating the new curriculum and merging it with existing course content. He aims to launch the new curriculum in the Fall 2014 and Spring 2015 semesters.

For more information about Professors Zobitz and Bibelnieks’ trip to Nicaragua, read their write-up in the October/November 2012 issue of MAA Focus. You can also connect with Zobitz and Bibelnieks on Twitter—@ProfZobitz and @DrTBibel, respectively—and be sure to follow @MathEngaging for tweets about Engaging Mathematics partners and projects.

Article originally published by Christine Marie DeCarlo on February 26, 2014.

Bucki Facilitating

Engaging Mathematics Partners Launch New Initiative

This past weekend, January 24-25, nineteen members of the Engaging Mathematics leadership team, including the partners, advisory board representatives, consultants, and Co-PIs, met in Jersey City, New Jersey to formally begin work on how to “make mathematics relevant to students’ lives, to connect mathematics learning to the goals and interests that students bring to college, and to show how mathematics relates to other disciplines, important civic questions, and technological challenges.”

On the first day of the meeting, the partners from the lead institutions shared and discussed details about the math curricula they had developed, including their intended audiences, the civic topics covered, and the expected rollout of each course or module. Attendees discussed strategies to expand the community of practice by reaching out to peers through academic meetings and conferences. An action planning workshop led by facilitator Jonathan Bucki helped stakeholders to specifically plot activities over the three years of the grant.

Attendees were joined by cadets from the United States Military Academy who shared their experiences with math courses that include civic issues. The cadets also demonstrated mathematical modeling on topics such as power battery loadouts for US soldiers, and the relationships between their costs and weights. Dr. Rikki Wagstrom of Metropolitan State University discussed how she incorporated the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) into her “Mathematics of Sustainability” course.

The second day of the meeting focused on assessment and evaluation. The independent evaluator for Engaging Mathematics, Leo Gafney, discussed his plans and methods for evaluating the project outcomes. Later, Stephen Carroll of Santa Clara University discussed guidelines and best practices for the Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG), which will be used to evaluate student progress in the courses.

“It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm of the project’s faculty members from different institutions as they worked together on planning and as they shared their ideas about teaching mathematics through a variety of civic issues, including environmental sustainability, energy consumption, water resources, and other topics related to local, regional or national needs. I am optimistic that the work the ‘Engaging Mathematics’ faculty are doing will be shared and serve as models (whether full courses or modules that can be used in a course) for the wider SENCER and national mathematics communities,” said Ellen Mappen, an NCSCE consultant with the project.

Following the meeting, Dr. Lynn Gieger of Oglethorpe University, a partner in Engaging Mathematics, shared that, “I came away from the weekend with a much better sense of the larger project as well as our particular role in it.” Dr. Chris Arney, professor of math and Chair of Network Science for the United States Military Academy and member of the advisory board, noted, “I do believe I was re-SENCERized.”

A page focusing on Engaging Mathematics activities and resources is now live here. Over the course of the project, a separate website will be developed and linked to this page. Visitors will be able to peruse the types of courses planned to be enhanced or developed, and additional features will be added to the site to allow project partners to share details on their course development, and once available, the results of course implementations. To learn more about the Engaging Mathematics initiative, please click here.

Article originally published by Kyle Simmons and Christine Marie DeCarlo on January 30, 2014.

Table Discussion

Engaging Mathematics Hosts Planning Meeting in New Jersey

As previously announced in the eNews (here), the National Science Foundation recently funded the project Engaging Mathematics, “a strategy and program to make mathematics relevant to students’ lives, to connect mathematics learning to the goals and interests that students bring to college, and to show how mathematics relates to other disciplines, important civic questions, and technological challenges.” On January 24th and 25th, the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement will host the kick-off meeting in Jersey City, NJ.

Engaging Mathematics project leadership includes Wm. David Burns, Principal Investigator, and Co-Principal Investigators Cindy Kaus of Metropolitan State University, Mangala Kothari of LaGuardia Community College, and Frank Wattenberg of the United States Military Academy. Project partners, who will develop the curricula and materials, include Tony Dunlop and Victor Padron of Normandale Community College, Cathy Evins and Barbara Gonzalez of Roosevelt University, Lynn Gieger and John Nardo of Oglethorpe University, Rikki Wagstrom of Metropolitan State University, and John Zobitz of Augsburg College.

During next week’s meeting, 19 of the project’s stakeholders will examine the curricula developed by the partners, discuss the expansion of the community of practice, and more closely plot the trajectory of the project going forward. Jonathan Bucki will facilitate planning discussions. Additional consultation will be provided by Dr. Leo Gafney (the project’s external evaluator), and Eliza Reilly and Ellen Mappen (of the National Center). Advisory board members who will contribute expertise for Engaging Mathematics include David Arney of the US Military Academy, Prabha Betne of LaGuardia Community College, Victor Donnay of Bryn Mawr College, David Ferguson of Stony Brook University, and Susan Forman of Bronx Community College. A summary of the meeting will be featured in a forthcoming edition of the NCSCE eNews.

Article originally published by Kyle Simmons on January 15, 2014.

stickies table

Engaging Mathematics to Expand SENCER Applications in Mathematics Education

Engaging Mathematics: Building a National Community of Practice is the name for a new three-year initiative supported by the National Science Foundation though its TUES-II program.

Engaging Mathematics (EM) will be organized by faculty colleagues who have successfully incorporated the SENCER ideals and other progressive pedagogies into college-level mathematics education. Over the next three years, the partners will work together to develop, assess and refine courses and modules, sharing them within the community of practice. As the project matures, EM partners will disseminate the results of their labors to the larger higher education community through a variety of media. While EM partners will routinely communicate with the SENCER community and participate in SENCER’s faculty development programs, they will also reach out to—and through—disciplinary societies and others new to SENCER.

In three years, the EM project intends to produce and publish transferable models, offer webinars, and organize local, regional, and national faculty development opportunities. The overall goal is to nurture and support a vibrant community of practice open to those committed to improving mathematics learning by connecting that learning to the great civic challenges of our day.

“Though this wasn’t so in the early years of SENCER, we now have a strong corps of leaders, along with terrific models and other curricular assets, in mathematics,” noted David Burns, NCSCE’s executive director and the PI of the new NSF award. “This grant from NSF will enable a team of scholars who have created many of these assets to work intensively with one another to expand their efforts, connect to new communities, and introduce successful approaches to colleagues around the country.”

“As with all our Center’s initiatives, our goal is to improve learning and strengthen the capacity for responsible civic engagement, ” Burns added. “We are blessed with a terrific team of co-PI’s and campus collaborators who will work to achieve the ambitious goals we set for this project. This is especially important work in the context of our nation’s need to improve our capacity to use mathematics to describe, model, analyze, and make reliable predictions about some of the most vexing problems we face. How to best understand and make decisions about a welter of personal and practical problems that are presented and argued in mathematical or statistical terms is one more challenge we hope to help our students meet.”

Burns, who will serve as principal investigator of Engaging Mathematics, will be joined by a team of co-principal investigators including: Dr. Cindy Kaus of Metropolitan State University, Dr. Mangala Kothari of LaGuardia Community College, and Dr. Frank Wattenberg of the United States Military Academy.

Engaging Mathematics institutional partners include Dr. John Zobitz of Augsburg College, Dr. Victor Padron and Dr. Tony Dunlop of Normandale Community College, Dr. John Nardo and Dr. Lynn Gieger of Oglethorpe University, and Dr. Barbara Gonzalez and Dr. Cathy Evins of Roosevelt University. Dr. Leo Gafney will provide guidance and overall evaluation of Engaging Mathematics activities.

During the term of the project, partners at LaGuardia Community College plan to expand on the successful Project Quantum Leap course Elementary Statistics with Environmental and Social Issues. Metropolitan State University participants will create modules for calculus courses centered on the topic of sustainability. In addition to these newly developed courses, LaGCC and Metro State will also disseminate successful SENCER applications on their campuses to the other Engaging Mathematics partners, and to faculty and administrators locally and nationally.

Augsburg’s focus will be on a project-based calculus endeavor, while Oglethorpe University will create new models for the general education courses required of all students. Roosevelt University partners plan to integrate the SENCER approach into a college algebra course using issues affecting the city of Chicago. Normandale Community College plans to focus on water issues in a general education course, specifically enabling students to create linear and regression models. They also plan to introduce calculus-based group projects into another course.

An overall project goal is to have the newly developed course and modules taught at both the institution where the course was originally developed and at a partner campus. In the end, all the institutional partners will thus have the benefits of several new courses and the PIs and project team will have a better understanding of what is needed to make courses succeed in multiple settings.

Professor Frank Wattenberg of the United States Military Academy will provide guidance and forge connections with other national mathematics innovation initiatives. He will be responsible for connecting our reform efforts to already successful and complementary projects, so that the full advantage of what has been developed and learned by others is available to the EM partners and the SENCER community.

Distinguished educators who will advise Engaging Mathematics partners as they execute activities over the next several years include David C. Arney of the United States Military Academy, Samuel Benigni of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Prabha Betne of LaGuardia Community College, Victor Donnay of Bryn Mawr College, David Ferguson of Stony Brook University, Susan Forman of CUNY Bronx Community College, and Solomon Garfunkel of COMAP. Additionally, NCSCE senior scholars Ellen Mappen and Eliza Reilly will assist project partners with consultation on planning and dissemination and in transforming their successful courses and modules into SENCER national models.

At its invitation, the Engaging Mathematics leadership team will work with the Mathematical Association of America to disseminate materials, modules/courses, and results to their communities of interest. Additionally, Engaging Mathematics will offer a website where updates and resources developed throughout the initiative will be made available to all interested educators, administrators, and students. Regional meetings, national symposia presentations, and faculty development programs are planned.

Look for reports on the work of the Engaging Mathematics partnerships, along with information on how you and your institution might benefit from the EM project in future editions of the eNews.

Article originally published September 19, 2013.