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APLU & University Partners Receive $3 Million NSF Grant to Scale Use of Active Learning for Undergraduate Mathematics Instruction

Washington, DC – In an effort to help undergraduate students pursuing degrees in STEM fields avoid trouble with introductory mathematics courses — the most common roadblock to a degree — the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and three university partners today announced they have received a $3 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study and scale the use of active learning for precalculus and calculus instruction. The announcement coincided with a nationwide Active Learning Day led by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as part of its efforts to improve STEM education at all levels using insights from research in the learning sciences.

APLU’s partners for the grant — San Diego State University, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — are national leaders in effectively using active learning for undergraduate introductory mathematics (precalculus through calculus 2). All three schools have seen remarkable improvement in student success using active learning compared to students taught in a more traditional lecture courses. Through the grant, known as SEMINAL: Student Engagement through an Institutional Network for Active Learning, the three universities will work with APLU to identify and implement the best ways to scale such instruction at public universities nationwide.

“Far too often we see students eagerly pursuing degrees and careers in STEM fields get unnecessarily derailed because of introductory mathematics courses being taught in an old-fashioned way that simply doesn’t connect,” said Howard Gobstein, APLU’s Executive Director and Co-Project Director for the association’s Science & Mathematics Teaching Imperative initiative. “When implemented effectively, active learning has a transformational impact on students’ ability to learn and understand calculus courses, which are the foundation of so many STEM disciplines. With a membership of more than 230 public universities and university systems, APLU is well-positioned to ultimately take the products of this grant and help institutions across the country effectively implement active learning for introductory mathematics. This has the very real potential to change the trajectory of countless students’ studies and careers.”

SEMINAL is aimed at helping universities both realize the benefits of active learning and providing a clear path for how they can implement such instruction. The project will be carried out in two phases. In the first phase, APLU, San Diego State University, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will undertake case studies to offer a retrospective look at lessons learned from those three institutions as well as three additional public institutions that have had success. In the second phase, up to nine additional universities will be selected to attempt to implement active learning in their introductory precalculus to calculus sequence based on the lessons learned through the first phase. Those schools will develop theory and insights into the processes by which change focused on active learning in mathematics can unfold over time. If successful, those additional schools would serve as models for how to implement active learning at universities across the country.

Students who do poorly in introductory mathematics significantly reduce their options for majoring in STEM or pursuing STEM-related careers, which is an area of national need and where job growth is dynamic. A 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology (PCAST) criticized universities for not doing enough to improve student outcomes with mathematics, saying that, “low-performing students with a high interest and aptitude in STEM careers often have difficulty with the math required in introductory STEM courses with little help provided by their universities.”

Overwhelming evidence has shown that active learning techniques generate significantly greater learning, as stated in the attached NSF project abstract. The largest study of undergraduate STEM education literature to date — a meta-analysis of 225 studies published by the National Academies in 2014 — found that undergraduate students in classes using active learning methods had higher course grades by half a letter grade, and students in classes with traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail. Mathematics leaders agree — in the most in-depth study of calculus education in at least a generation, 44 percent of all mathematics departments said active learning strategies are very important for student success. Yet, of those departments, 75 percent report they are not very successful at providing such instruction.

APLU’s focus on expanding the use of active learning came from its Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership (MTE-Partnership), which provides a coordinated research, development, and implementation effort for secondary mathematics teacher preparation programs to promote research and best practices in the field. MTE-Partnership addresses the significant national shortage of well-prepared secondary mathematics teachers who can support their students in achieving the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM). The group was convened by APLU’s Science and Mathematics Teaching Imperative (SMTI) in early 2012 and includes 101 universities, university systems, and community colleges and 142 K-12 schools and school districts across 30 states working to collaboratively transform secondary mathematics teacher preparation.

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