The National Science Foundation Has Resources to Help You Improve the Teaching and Learning of Undergraduate Mathematics

By Ron Buckmire, TJ Murphy, John Haddock, Sandra Richardson, and Brent Driscoll

This article is intended to serve as a rough “proof” of the statement, “There exist many resources and opportunities supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve the teaching and learning of undergraduate mathematics.” We present a curated, annotated list of projects funded by the NSF’s Divis­ion of Undergraduate Education (DUE) that readers of this blog might be interested in. Additionally, we demonstrate the remarkable diversity of projects and institutions that are funded by DUE to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics, and share professional opportunities for people who share these goals.

The NSF is an independent federal agency tasked by the United States Congress to “promote the progress of science.” With a budget of 7.5 billion dollars in fiscal year 2016, NSF received approximately 50,000 proposals and made almost 12,000 awards. NSF is organized into seven Directorates that support research in various disciplines in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as well as in education. Each of the Directorates is further organized into Divisions. For example, the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) is situated in the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS). The Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) houses DUE, which manages the awards that are the primary focus of this article.

DUE’s current signature program is Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE). IUSE is the latest incarnation of DUE’s programmatic efforts to actualize its mission “to promote excellence in undergraduate STEM education for all students.” Former DUE programs include “Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM” (TUES) and “Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement” (CCLI). The current IUSE solicitation is 15-585, and the next deadline for full proposals is January 11, 2017.

In the next section, we will describe (primarily using excerpts from publicly available abstracts) several active IUSE awards that illustrate variation in topics, institutions, budget size, grant duration, and project type supported by NSF.

Progress Through Calculus (1430540), $2,250,003, PI David Bressoud, Mathematical Association of America.

This project is a follow-up to the project Characteristics of Successful Programs in College Calculus (DRL-0910240) which “undertook a national survey of Calculus instruction and conducted multi-day case study visits to 20 colleges and universities with interesting and, in most cases, successful calculus programs.” Progress Through Calculus has two focal areas of research guided by the following questions: (1) What are the programs and structures of the pre-calculus to calculus sequence as currently implemented? How common are the various programs and structures? How varied are they in practice? What kinds of changes have recently been undertaken or are currently underway? (2) What are the effects of structural, curricular, and pedagogical decisions on student success in pre-calculus to calculus? Success will be assessed on a variety of measures including longitudinal measures of persistence and retention, performance in subsequent courses, knowledge of both pre-calculus and calculus topics, and student attitudes.

Collaborative Research: Data-Driven Applications Inspiring Upper-Division Mathematics (1642095), $249,789, PI Heather Moon, Lewis Clark State College.

This is a collaborative project (which consists of linked awards at multiple institutions) involving investigators at , Hendrix College, Kenyon College, and Lewis Clark State College. The goals are to (1) introduce current cutting-edge research and practical data problems from science, industry, and government to students in undergraduate upper-division mathematics courses and (2) lead these students to develop the problem-solving, collaborative, and research skills that are so crucial in today’s work environment. The focus of this project is to create a body of applied data-driven instructional modules to motivate student research as well as to generate a deeper understanding and appreciation of the mathematical theory needed to solve these problems.

Collaborative Research: Improving Conceptual Understanding of Multivariable Calculus Through Visualization Using CalcPlot3D (1524968), $456,993.00. PI Paul Seeburger, Monroe Community College.

Three investigators at a community college (Monroe Community College), a public 4-year college (State University of New York at Buffalo), and a private 4-year college (Robert Morris University) are collaborating with faculty across the United States and Mexico to: (1) design and test a series of new visual concept explorations and applications in CalcPlot3D to improve student understanding of multivariable calculus; (2) expand the features of CalcPlot3D to accommodate the new concept explorations and address applications in differential equations, linear algebra, physics, and engineering; (3) create new visualization apps, including a new version of CalcPlot3D, that work on more platforms, including tablets and phones; (4) conduct and publish research investigating how student understanding of multivariable calculus concepts changes through the use of visualization and dynamic concept explorations; and (5) extend and diversify the user base by disseminating project materials through papers, workshops and conferences, by creating a Spanish language version of project materials, and by promoting the exchange of user feedback and research.

Collaborative Research: Professional Development and Uptake through Collaborative Teams (PRODUCT): Supporting Inquiry Based Learning in Undergraduate Mathematics, (1525058), $2,842,393. PI Stan Yoshinobu, California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.

This collaborative project between California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and University of Colorado Boulder intends to greatly expand the capacity of faculty to implement the specific active learning strategy of inquiry-based learning (IBL). PRODUCT will conduct 12 four-day intensive IBL workshops, as well as 15 short workshops and five Professional Development (PD) Preparatory Meetings, and will host a PD Summit for mathematics faculty developers. Through these activities, PRODUCT will directly provide professional development for 320 undergraduate mathematics faculty, adapt and improve IBL PD materials, develop multiple new teams of faculty developers who will be prepared to engage additional faculty in the future, and develop a framework for building professional development capacity. A research-with-evaluation study will provide formative feedback, study the process and outcomes for development of the professional development teams, gather data to benchmark workshops led by new teams against a model known to be effective, and investigate the classroom practices of workshop participants to understand how the professional development experience shapes their teaching.

MATH: CONFERENCE: Active Learning Approaches in Mathematics Instruction: Practice and Assessment Workshop (1544374), $25,000, PI Ron Douglas, Texas A&M University.

This project is an example of a workshop award (which are typically less than $50,000 and are submitted at any time after communicating directly with a program officer). 1544374 supports the implementation of a workshop entitled Active Learning in Mathematics Instruction that was held in conjunction with the Mathematical Association of America’s 2016 Mathfest conference. The workshop was designed to survey and investigate the characteristics, challenges, and evaluation of active learning approaches to collegiate mathematics instruction and to expand the community of individuals who are knowledgeable about both the methods and important questions involving active learning. Participants in the workshop included experts in education and social science research methods as well as active learning mathematics practitioners and departmental leaders.

MATH: EAGER: Developing a Learning Map for Introductory Statistics (1544481), $299,832. PI Angela Broaddus, University of Kansas.

This award is an example of a special funding mechanism at NSF called EAGER (Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research) that is intended to support potentially transformative research that is considered “high risk high payoff.” The goals of 1544481 are to create and validate a “learning map” (Stat-LM) for the content of undergraduate introductory statistics. This learning map will be a graphical representation of statistics concepts with connections among the concepts suggesting effective learning sequences. Use of Stat-LM is intended to improve undergraduate learning by providing diagnostic information to instructors about students in their statistics courses, informing professional development for undergraduate statistics instructors, and modeling how critical prerequisites taught in high school connect to postsecondary learning expectations.

Assessing the Impact of the Emporium Model on Student Persistence and Dispositional Learning by Transforming Faculty Culture (1610482), $299,999, PI Kathy Cousins-Cooper, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University.

This is an example of a project co-funded between two programs found in two divisions of EHR. 1610482 was submitted to the IUSE program in EHR/DUE but also received funds from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP) in EHR/HRD (Division of Human Resources Development). The investigators will employ, study, and assess an instructional and student learning model, called the Mathematics Emporium Model (MEM), to improve students’ performance in introductory mathematics courses. These gatekeeper courses are normally taken during an intense and often difficult transition for students, from high school to college. The MEM eliminates lecture and uses commercially available interactive computer software combined with personalized on-demand assistance and mandatory student participation. The underlying principle of the Emporium Model is that students learn by doing. Research reveals that the shift to student-centered instructional practices enhances students’ attitudes and beliefs about learning in mathematics courses and increases student-learning gains. The project will directly reach a combined annual enrollment in traditionally low-pass-rate courses of more than 4,000 students, who will be mostly from underrepresented groups.

Professional Development Emphasizing Data-Centered Resources and Pedagogies for Instructors of Undergraduate Introductory Statistics (StatPREP) (1626337) , $1,772,028, PI Doug Ensley, Mathematical Association of America.

This project responds to a recommendation found in A Common Vision for Undergraduate Mathematical Sciences Programs in 2025, a report funded by an award from EHR/DUE (1446000) and issued jointly by the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC), American Mathematical Society (AMS), American Statistical Association (ASA), Mathematical Association of America (MAA), and Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). Specifically, StatPREP will catalyze the widespread use of data-centered methods and pedagogies in undergraduate introductory statistics courses. It will work directly with 240 college-level instructors by (1) offering an extended professional development program for mathematics instructors, particularly at two-year institutions, who teach introductory statistics; (2) establishing regional communities of practice to support instructors who teach introductory statistics; and (3) establishing a national online support network comprising instructors who teach introductory statistics and statistics education experts.

The above awards are just a fraction of the dozens of active awards we manage in EHR/DUE. We are excited about the work of the DUE-funded projects and their impact on improving the future of teaching and learning in undergraduate mathematics. We encourage readers to examine the full list of EHR/DUE active awards in undergraduate mathematics and mathematics education. If readers of this blog have ideas or suggestions for proposed activities that could improve the teaching and learning of mathematics, feel free to contact us.


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