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Public Universities Move to Scale Active Learning in Undergraduate Math Education

Washington, DC – In an effort to help undergraduate students pursuing STEM degrees succeed in introductory mathematics courses – the most common roadblock to a degree – the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) today announced it will work with a dozen universities to scale the adoption of active learning for undergraduate pre-calculus and calculus instruction.

Over the past year, APLU has worked with San Diego State University, University of Colorado Boulder, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which have all championed the use of active learning in introductory mathematics instruction with great success. With those three institutions as partners, APLU will now support and study the efforts of nine universities across the country. The process will help to identify which methods for implementing active learning for mathematics work best at different types of schools, with the ultimate goal of developing models that can work at virtually any institution.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is supporting the project, known as SEMINAL: Student Engagement in Mathematics through an Institutional Network for Active Learning, with a $3 million, five-year grant. The initiative will place a particular emphasis on helping underrepresented minority students succeed in introductory math courses that are foundational in STEM fields.

The nine universities announced today will join the three core institutions to form a diverse cohort of institutions aiming to study how to enact and support institutional change fostering the use of active learning in mathematics. The universities joining the effort were selected from a pool of 47 institutions that submitted proposals and will serve as models for a national push to reform introductory math instruction. Given significant university interest in joining the active learning project, SEMINAL will seek ways to engage a broader network of universities in the future.

“Far too many students hoping to pursue careers in STEM fields get tripped up by introductory math courses right off the starting block,” said Howard Gobstein, APLU’s Executive Vice President and one of the principal investigators on the NSF-backed initiative. “With a persistent shortage of skilled workers in STEM fields and unequal access to all students, we have a tremendous opportunity to broaden participation and address the biggest hurdle for STEM students’ success. A growing body of evidence shows that active learning is highly effective at helping students succeed where traditional instructional methods would have failed them. And we’re thrilled to scale an approach that we know works to help more students realize their dreams in the STEM fields.”

The nine institutions are: California State University, East Bay; California State University, Fullerton, Kennesaw State University, Loyola University Chicago, Morgan State University, The Ohio State University, University of Maryland, University of Oklahoma, and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

The institutions were selected through a rigorous peer review process examining the merit of proposals as well as institutional characteristics including type, size, location, and attributes of the student body. SEMINAL was initiated through, and continues to align with, the APLU Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership (MTEP) – building on earlier funding from the Helmsley Charitable Trust. APLU is also working to increase underrepresented minority participation in the STEM fields through its APLU INCLUDES effort, which aims to diversify STEM faculty.

“We have clear evidence that we can improve learning and retention for all students through active learning that promotes cognitive engagement, and this works especially well for those who are most at risk,” said David M. Bressoud, Director, Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences. “In response, the presidents of the professional societies in the mathematical sciences have called for the incorporation of these practices into all mathematics courses. But most faculty are not conversant with how to do this effectively, and most departments do not know how to foster the changes that need to be made. The work of APLU and its partnering universities through SEMINAL is demonstrating how departments can enable and support these innovations.”

Introductory math courses are foundational to success in STEM majors and fields and active learning has proven highly effective in helping more students succeed in such courses. 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.

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