Monday, December 1, 2014

Reforming Undergraduate Math and Science Education: Two Reports

Two reports have just come out calling for reform of undergraduate Math and Science education. One approaches reform from above: from the organizations that represent presidents, provosts, and deans across consortia of universities and colleges and from those corporations and non-profit organizations seeking to facilitate change; the other from below: from individual faculty who include some of the leading research mathematicians in the country. That is not an entirely accurate characterization. Both reports reflect the concerns and efforts of everyone involved in reform of undergraduate mathematics and science education, but it does indicate their respective strengths.

Between them, these two reports tally an impressive 68 specific recommendations. More important than the details of what they recommend are the common threads among their messages. I see six that stand out:
  • We need to be aware that, because of changing demographics and increasing pressures to accelerate K-12 education, both the needs and preparation of the students entering our colleges and universities are not what they were a generation ago. We need to evaluate our programs in the light of these changes and to modify them accordingly. This includes the support and even creation of nontraditional pathways toward careers in mathematics, science, engineering, and technology.
  • We need to revisit our curricular decisions in order to support learning that draws on multiple disciplines and to build platforms from which students can address the problems of the future.
  • We need to revisit our pedagogical decisions with an awareness of the evidence that exists for better approaches to teaching and learning.
  • We need to develop, employ, and respond to measurements of program effectiveness.
  • We need to focus more attention on the preparation of teachers, both those who would teach in K-12 and those graduate students who will be the next generation of college and university professors.
  • We need to support an institutional culture that encourages awareness of what is and is not working as well as a habit of thoughtful, creative, and timely response when problems are identified. An essential component of supporting such a culture is an increase in the value placed on the work of those who are addressing these needs.
The first of the two reports, Achieving Systemic Change: A Sourcebook for Advancing and Funding Undergraduate STEM Education, is available at It was issued by the Coalition for Reform of Undergraduate STEM Education, a joint effort of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), the Association of American Universities (AAU), and the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities (APLU). Linda Slakey, former Director of the Division of Undergraduate Education at NSF and currently Senior Adviser to AAU and Senior Fellow of AAC&U, is the convener of this coalition. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement are the funders.

As the subtitle indicates, the audience for this report encompasses all of those who seek to reform the current system, especially targeting those interested in funding change. For this reason, the focus is on what we know about what works and where to find the leverage points with greatest potential effect. In addition to its cross-disciplinary emphasis and mobilization of administrators and funders, Achieving Systemic Change provides a wealth of references to and descriptions of successful programs and initiatives.

The second report, Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics (TPSE Math): Report of a Meeting, is the product of an effort by leading mathematicians: Phillip Griffiths of IAS, Eric Friedlander of USC, Mark Green of UCLA, Tara Holm of Cornell, and Uri Treisman of UT-Austin, with additional leadership from Jim Gates of the University of Maryland and with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It reports the outcome of a workshop held at the University of Texas at Austin, June 20–22, 2014, and is available at

TPSE Math is less tightly structured (it contains 44 of the 68 recommendations), but it is directly relevant to the mathematics community and communicates a powerful message. It also includes descriptions of a wide variety of ongoing programs and initiatives.

Together, these two reports provide a glimpse into the current landscape of reform efforts in undergraduate science and mathematics education and an indication of where the most pressing needs currently lie. They also suggest a hopeful confluence of concern with these issues across all levels. Bottom-up efforts only work in an institutional environment that encourages and supports them. Top-down directives only work when there is critical mass of faculty eager to do the hard work of implementation. There is every reason to hope that these forces are coming into alignment.

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