SIAM News Blog

CBMS Forum Addresses Math Curricula for College Transition

By Peter Turner

The Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (CBMS) Forum on The First Two Years of College Math: Building Student Success held in Reston, VA last month brought together approximately 150 mathematicians and educators to advance the discussions on the vital transitional first two years of college. Motivation for the meeting was drawn from criticisms raised in the PCAST Engage to Excel report and from SIAM’s initiative in Modeling across the Curriculum among others.

Plenary sessions covered a number of topics starting with Mark Green on the Mathematical Sciences in 2025 report. Evolving Mathematical Needs in Pathways for Students was an overarching theme for subsequent plenary sessions with varying foci: Needs, What is being done (largely based around a broad view of Modeling across the Curriculum), the Needs of the Users and Employers, and implications for high schools and the Common Core curriculum.

There were also multiple breakout sessions continuing many of the same themes. Two of interest to SIAM were led by SIAM VP for Education-elect Rachel Levy on the program at Harvey Mudd and its use of industrial “clinics” in helping students appreciate the use and relevance of mathematics, as well as my session on the “Evolution of the Uses of Mathematics and Some Current Approaches,” which included presentations on Modeling across the Curriculum, the INGenIOuS report (Paul Zorn, St Olaf) and developments in Statistics (John Bailer, Miami University).

Of particular interest is what was discussed outside the main agenda in evening meetings to outline next steps and future directions. These were hosted by CBMS Chair Don Saari and included representation from AMS, MAA, SIAM, NCTM and others. Among the ideas presented were:

  • A modeling-based approach to the curriculum: “Modeling” here is intended to be inclusive of statistical and computational modeling as well as conventional so-called “physics-based” models and modeling. Such an approach still allows inclusion of many standard concepts and techniques but also brings relevance, and hence, motivation. Use of computation can enhance (not reduce) depth of understanding of many important concepts – uniform continuity, Riemann sums and the concept of an integral, errors and reliability, problem-solving , etc. This can be started in high school (ref. Modeling across the Curriculum reports and the Bliss, Fowler, Galluzzo handbook on Mathematical Modeling: Getting Started and Getting Solutions). The biggest advantage is arguably in student motivation and awareness of mathematics in many different fields. Such an approach allows “tailored” courses for different “majors” or fields of interest while perhaps sharing some lecture content. Modeling projects and challenges enhance students’ ownership of their education.
  • Developing an outcomes-based approach to curriculum design: Engage CBMS and ABET (as a first outreach – definitely not the only one). ABET criteria in almost all areas of their accreditation are outcomes-based but in math requirements, they still typically list courses. We could seek cooperative alliance to explore ABET “accreditation” of mathematics minors or other similar certification/transcripted programs.
  • Think about a fundamental redesign of transition years curriculum based on desired learning outcomes rather than a list of topics. This has the potential to facilitate our community working together to make deeper changes to curriculum rather than fine-tuning and the usual arguments about what has to go to make way for anything new.
  • Identification and development of next generation leaders: We need to bring in good younger faculty who can carry the torch of our plans with energy and enthusiasm for the next decade. Most of the leadership group that has been involved so far is relatively senior. We need both the energy of new people and the ideas of those who have developed their careers closer to the era of our new generations of students whose lifestyles and expectances are so different from ours.

Peter Turner is the Dean of Arts and Sciences and a professor of mathematics at Clarkson University. He is SIAM’s Vice President for Education.

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