Thursday, September 1, 2016

CBMS and Active Learning

I have just accepted the position of Director of the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (CBMS) and will be taking over from Ron Rosier at the end of this year. Most mathematicians, if they have heard of it at all, know of CBMS for its national survey of the mathematical sciences conducted every five years or for its regional research conferences. A few may know of CBMS through its forums on educational issues, its series on Issues in Mathematics Education, or the Mathematical Education of Teachers (MET II) report.

These have emerged from the core mission of CBMS, which is to provide a structure within which the presidents of the societies that represent the mathematical sciences [1] can identify issues of common concern and coordinate efforts to address them. This is exemplified in the joint statement on Active Learning in Postsecondary Mathematics [2] that was released this past July. This statement explains what is meant by active learning, presents the case for its importance, points to some of the published evidence of its effectiveness, lists society reports that have encouraged its use, and urges the following recommendation:

We call on institutions of higher education, mathematics departments and the mathematics faculty, public policy-makers, and funding agencies to invest time and resources to ensure that effective active learning is incorporated into postsecondary mathematics classrooms.

Ben Braun led the society representatives who drafted this position paper [2]. The presidents of all of the member societies with strong interest in mathematics education have signed onto it [3].

I see this statement as an example of what can be accomplished when the mathematical societies look to issues of common interest, and I am looking forward to working with them to coordinate efforts that will help colleges and universities identify and implement locally appropriate strategies for active learning.

I also hope to use my position to assist these societies in addressing the issues of articulation that so plague mathematics education. These include the transitions from two-year to four-year institutions, from undergraduate to either graduate school or the workforce, and from graduate school to either academic or non-academic employment. But the transition on which I am currently focusing my attention is from secondary to postsecondary education. This point of discontinuity is rife with difficulties for many of our students who would seek STEM careers as well those who have struggled with mathematics. It is especially problematic for students from underrepresented groups: racially, ethnically, by socio-economic status, by gender, and by family experience with postsecondary education.

The solutions—for there will be many pieces to be addressed if we are to succeed in ameliorating the problems—will require strong and coordinated efforts from both sides of the transition from high school to college. I am very encouraged by the clear messages of support for this work that I have received from NCTM, NCSM, and ASSM on the secondary side of the divide as well as AMS, MAA, AMATYC, ASA, and SIAM from the postsecondary side. CBMS is uniquely situated to bridge their work.

While I expect my primary focus to be on educational concerns, CBMS has and must continue to work on all matters of common interest including public awareness of the role and importance of mathematics, advocacy for programs that improve opportunities for underrepresented minorities, and issues of employment in the mathematical sciences.

I want to conclude by acknowledging the tremendous debt that the mathematical community owes to Ron Rosier and Lisa Kolbe who have been the entire staff of CBMS for roughly three decades. They have made this an effective organization. Under their direction, it has run smoothly and accomplished a great deal. They have left me with a very strong base on which to continue to build.


[1] The seventeen professional societies that belong to CBMS can be grouped into those that are primarily focused at the postsecondary level:

[2] Active Learning in Postsecondary Mathematics, available at
The writing team was led by Ben Braun and included myself as well as Diane Briars, Ted Coe, Jim Crowley, Jackie Dewar, Edray Herber Goins, Tara Holm, Pao-Sheng Hsu, Ken Krehbiel, Donna LaLonde, Matt Larson, Jacqueline Leonard, Rachel Levy, Doug Mupasiri, Brea Ratliff, Francis Su, Jane Tanner, Christine Thomas, Margaret Walker, and Mark Daniel Ward. The presidents of the member societies undertook the final wordsmithing.

[3] The presidents of INFORMS and SOA were the only ones who were not engaged in the formulation or signing of this position paper.