Campus News

Bowdoin Launches National Effort to Rethink Math and Science Education

Story posted October 25, 1999

More than two dozen mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists from colleges and universities across the country met at Bowdoin College Oct. 28-31 to help plot the future of undergraduate mathematics education in the United States.

This workshop, and others like it over the next 18 months, reviewed undergraduate mathematics as an individual discipline, and as a base of knowledge for many other subjects. This is the first time undergraduate mathematics curriculum has been reviewed on a national scale since 1981, and the first time it has ever been reviewed systematically from the viewpoint of other disciplines.

"To understand mathematics only in isolation from other subjects is at best incomplete, and at worst, crippling," said Bowdoin Mathematics Professor William Barker, who chairs a committee organizing the series of workshops to take place across the country through 2000.

This work is more critical today than ever, as American students slip further and further behind their counterparts in other countries in the study of math and science. The effectiveness of junior and senior high school math and science teachers is a direct result of the quality of education they received as undergraduates.

A study released last year showed that high school seniors in the United States scored near the bottom of 21 countries, 6 percent lower than the international average, including students from Canada, New Zealand, Australia and virtually all of Europe. As a result, a national commission chaired by Senator John Glenn began work this summer to study what the United States can do to improve the quality of its math and science teachers.

The findings of these workshops likely will have broad implications: A previous effort in the early 1980s helped lead to a shift in the way calculus was taught, from an emphasis on acquiring a specific body of knowledge to an emphasis on being able to think conceptually about mathematics and apply mathematical knowledge to a variety of problems. "The calculus reform movement was without question the most prominent and far-reaching change in undergraduate mathematics in the past decade," Barker said.

The workshops are organized by a committee of the Mathematics Association of America, "Calculus Reform And the First Two Years", or CRAFTY, which is chaired by Barker. The results will be submitted to the MAA’s Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathematics, which is conducting a comprehensive review of undergraduate mathematics education.

The first workshop, funded entirely by Bowdoin College, concentrated on math as it relates to physics and computer science. Guy Emery, professor of physics, emeritus, and Allen Tucker, Bowdoin’s Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Natural Sciences organized areas of the workshop related to their specialty.

Subsequent workshops, all organized by CRAFTY, will deal with other disciplines, such as the life sciences, economics and other quantitative social sciences. The second workshop, scheduled for Nov. 4-7 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, focuses on physics and engineering.

Workshop participants from each discipline will produce a paper on their conclusions, which will be circulated nationally for comment. When the workshops are completed in 2001, there will be a final conference to draft detailed curriculum recommendations for undergraduate mathematics education.

"This is the first time we are seeking input in this pure way, for other disciplines to tell us what they need from mathematics," Barker said.

Bowdoin College funded the first workshop as part of the rededication of the Searles Science Building, home of the math, physics and computer science departments. The keynote speaker for the rededication was Prof. Thomas Banchoff of Brown University, president of the MAA and a participant in the workshop. His keynote address was titled "Internet-Based Courses and the Future of Math and Science Education."

"We are extremely grateful to Bowdoin College for recognizing the importance of this effort and for its generous sponsorship of the first workshop," Barker said.

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