SIAM News Blog

SIAM’s Key Role in Transforming Post-Secondary Mathematics Education

By Karen Saxe

One of the themes of the 2016 SIAM Annual Meeting, held in Boston this July, was “Education, Communication, and Policy,” and I was humbled to give an invited presentation on education. I outlined the role of mathematics in American higher education throughout the country’s history, discussed current challenges and opportunities for those involved with undergraduate education, and offered suggestions as to how one might get involved—in small or big ways—to help improve post-secondary education in the mathematical sciences.

Part of the talk focused on my work with the Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics (TPSE Math) initiative. This initiative, sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, aims to implement constructive change in mathematics education at community colleges, four-year colleges, and research universities. Where are we now, and why is it so important that we fully engage the expertise of and join forces with SIAM members as TPSE Math moves forward? How can we do so?

SIAM is no stranger to work focused on improving education. Over the past 15 years, its activities in undergraduate education have grown rapidly, both within the SIAM community and in partnership with other professional associations.

In 1987, then-president Bill Gear elevated post-secondary education as a priority within SIAM by proposing the creation of a “Vice President for Campus Activities.” The SIAM Education Committee supports the Vice President for Education in SIAM activities related to both undergraduate and graduate-level education. The SIAM Activity Group on Applied Mathematics Education (SIAG/ED) was launched in 2015. Various reports, including SIAM’s first and second Modeling Across the Curriculum reports, published in 2012 and 2014, have offered important ideas that the larger mathematics community has embraced. The Undergraduate Degree Programs in Applied Mathematics report also published in 2014. And the first SIAM Conference on Applied Mathematics Education (ED16) was held in Philadelphia from September 30-October 2, 2016.

Participants engaging in a breakout session at the recent TPSE Chairs + 1 Conference, held in October 2016 in Washington, D.C. Photo credit: Arlen Hastings.
Why is this a good time to renew the conversation on improving education in the mathematical sciences? One compelling reason is that we have—via interest from the White House, as documented in the 2012 Engage to Excel report, published by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)—the opportunity to engage both government officials and the general public in what goes on in math classrooms and departments across the country. David M. Bressoud, Eric M. Friedlander, and C. David Levermore call us all to action in their response to the PCAST report, imperatively stating that “mathematics education needs immediate attention” (their emphasis).

Shortly after the PCAST report came out, the National Research Council (NRC) published The Mathematical Sciences in 2025 report. This account is much more positive about the work mathematicians do with students and provides a “springboard for initiatives in mathematics education that more closely intertwine the learning of mathematics with the appreciation of its applications.”

TPSE Math was launched, in part, to address challenges and galvanize the mathematical sciences community to capitalize on opportunities articulated in the PCAST and NRC reports.

In February 2013, Carnegie Corporation of New York assembled a group of higher education leaders in the mathematical sciences to take stock of the field and envision its possible transformation from a service discipline to an essential partner in post-secondary education. As a result of this meeting, Phillip Griffiths founded TPSE Math.

TPSE Math has listened to and will continue to work with the mathematical sciences community to determine how best to achieve systemic change. It is beginning to forge alliances with state and federal agencies, the policy community, university administrators, higher education associations, and professional organizations to secure the financial and structural support necessary to achieve these goals. In May 2016, TPSE Math was incorporated as an educational program affiliated with the University System of Maryland Foundation.

Through surveys, interactions at several regional meetings, and the help of strategy consultants from Parthenon-EY, TPSE has identified multiple action priorities. The following three are particularly relevant for the SIAM community:

  • Create multiple curriculum pathways: TPSE will function as an advisory partner of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), and the Charles A. Dana Center (the University of Texas at Austin) in developing multiple pathways in lower-division mathematics to increase completion rates and better align coursework with students’ programs of study.
  • Create enhanced alternative pathways: TPSE will promote reform of upper-division curricula in response to evolving career opportunities and demand for mathematics courses from other subjects.
  • Broaden training for graduate students: TPSE will encourage preparation of the next generation of faculty as both teachers and career development advisors for undergraduate students.

Systemic change in all three areas will help narrow the gap between how math is experienced in the workplace and how it is experienced in our classrooms.

Attendees of the recent TPSE Chairs + 1 Conference, held in October 2016 in Washington, D.C., discuss education policy. Photo credit: Arlen Hastings.
The observation of this need is not new. In the early 1990s, as stated in Looking Back, Looking Ahead: A SIAM History, “SIAM began its Mathematics in Industry Project, intending to ultimately formulate educational recommendations that would improve the ability of students to obtain employment in industry.”  One of the project’s products, the 1996 SIAM Report on Mathematics in Industry, recommends broadening the graduate curriculum to improve its compatibility with the needs of industry. Ph.D. students seeking employment outside of academia will obviously benefit from such improvement. Also, new faculty members familiar with industry could be more effective classroom teachers and advisors to undergraduates, as most baccalaureate-holders work in industry and do not continue in graduate school.

Eliminating the disconnect between math in the classroom and in the workplace will undoubtedly involve hard work with our STEM partners to ultimately develop more relevant curricula, differentiated by student need according to their chosen discipline of study. SIAM is at the forefront already, with its efforts to institute a first-year modeling course that precedes and motivates the study of calculus and other fundamental mathematics for STEM majors. The Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Mathematical Modeling Education (GAIMME) report articulates the case for SIAM’s role in supporting the integration of mathematical modeling into K-16 education.

As TPSE Math begins its implementation phase, mathematics departments around the country develop curricula in response to demand from other departments and make changes to narrow the gap between mathematics in the workplace and in classrooms. At this time, SIAM members are particularly well-positioned to support (theoretical) math faculty and graduate students, serve as resources for a breadth of applications, and establish richer connections to colleagues in other departments on campus and in industry.

Acknowledgments: The author’s private communications with James Crowley, executive director of SIAM, and Peter Turner, chair of the SIAM Activity Group on Applied Mathematics Education, contributed to the content of this article. 

Further Reading
[1] Holm, T. (2016). Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics. arXiv, Cornell University Library.
[2] Levy, R., Maki, K., & Fowler, K. (2015, April). How Can the SIAM Community Help Embed Math Modeling in K-16 Curricula? SIAM News, 48(3), April 2015.

Karen Saxe is the DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College.

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