Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Calculus at Crisis V: Networks of Support

Special Notice: The MAA Notes volume summarizing the results of Characteristics of Successful programs in College Calculus (NSF #0910240), Insights and Recommendations from the MAA National Study of College Calculus, is now available for free download as a PDF file at www.maa.org/cspcc.

This is the last of my columns on Calculus at Crisis. In the first three, from May, June, and July, I explained why we can no longer afford to continue doing what we have always done. Last month I described some of the lessons that have been learned in recent years about best practices with regard to placement, student support, curriculum, and pedagogy. Unfortunately, as those who seek to improve the teaching and learning of introductory mathematics and science have come to realize, knowing what works is not enough.

There are many barriers to change, both individual and institutional. Lack of awareness of what can be done is seldom one of them. In recent years, leaders in physics and chemistry education research, especially Melissa Dancy, Noah Finkelstein, and Charles Henderson have studied these barriers and begun to translate insights from the study of how institutional change comes about in order to assist those who seek to improve post- secondary science, mathematics, and engineering education.

One of the best short summaries describing specific steps toward achieving long-term change is Achieving Systemic Change, a report issued jointly by 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 and Land-grant Universities (APLU) that I discussed this past December. Its emphasis on creating supportive networks within and across institutions is reflected in our own findings in the MAA’s calculus study.

There has always been lively interest from individual faculty members in improving mathematics education. Heroic efforts have often succeeded in moving the dial, but without strong departmental support they are not sustainable. As I have explained over the past months, deans, provosts, and even presidents now realize that something must be done. I have yet to meet a dean of science who is not willing—usually even eager—to fund a proposal from the mathematics department for improving student outcomes provided it is concrete, workable, and cost-effective. (Just hiring more mathematicians does not cut it.) The key link between eager faculty and concerned administrators is the department chair, together with the senior, most highly respected faculty. Without their support and cooperation, no lasting improvements are possible.

The department chair is essential. This is the person who can take an enthusiastic proposal and massage it into a workable plan whose benefits are understandable to the upper administration. This is the person who can take a request from the dean, understand the resources that will be required, and find the right people to work on it. Unfortunately, appointment as chair does not automatically confer such wisdom. Part of what is needed is an understanding of what is being done at comparable institutions, how it is being implemented, what is working or failing and why. This is where the mathematical societies have an important role to play. AMS does this through its Information for Department Leaders, the work of the Committee on Education, and its blog On the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics. The MAA’s CUPM, CTUM, and CRAFTY committees provide this information through publications, panels, and contributed paper sessions. SIAM, ASA, and AMATYC also embrace this mission. Common Vision began this year as an effort to coordinate these activities across the five societies.

But a supportive department chair is not enough. The lasting power center in any department consists of senior faculty who are highly respected for their research visibility. The most successful calculus programs we have seen in the MAA study Characteristics of Successful Programs of College Calculus involved some of these senior faculty in an advisory capacity: monitoring the annual data on student performance, observing occasional classes, mentoring graduate students not just for research but also for the development of teaching expertise, and providing encouragement and a sounding board to those—usually younger faculty—engaged in trying new methods in the classroom. It will be the chair’s responsibility to identify the right people for this advisory group, but once it is in existence it can help ensure that future chairs are sympathetic to these efforts.

Finally, any mathematics department seeking to improve undergraduate education must remember that it is not alone within its institution. Similar efforts are underway in each of the sciences as well as engineering. Deans and provosts can help by formally recognizing those who serve in these senior roles across all STEM departments and encouraging links between these groups of faculty. They can draw on support and advice from consortia of colleges and universities such as AAU, APLU, and AAC&U, as well as multidisciplinary societies and consortia such as AAAS and the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education (PULSE), all of whom are working to promote networks of educational innovation that cross STEM disciplines. Joining with other departments within the institution can dispel the perception of mathematics as insular and unconcerned with the needs of others as it strengthens individual departmental efforts. All STEM departments are facing similar difficulties. This crisis presents us with an exceptional opportunity to work across traditional boundaries.