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Transforming STEM Education w/ Dr. Keith Weber


“If I were to begin my studies again, I would follow the advice of Plato and start with mathematics” ~ Galileo Galilei

Mathematics & STEM Education

Mathematics & STEM Education

 

Acknowledging The “M” in STEM Education

Math Students

Math Students

Houston, we have a problem. Because what they’ve been telling us all along since grade school, is absolutely true: Mathematics, like the very air we breathe, is in everything around us whether we’re actively perceiving it and using the knowledge to make more informed decisions and to reach for higher goals or not at all.

Even musicians sense this when they’re playing through their magnificent melodies, which are all accomplished through the counting of rhythms and intervals, of organizing patterns and of recognizing the harmonious relationships between various frequencies or groups of musical notes. All of it, a masterful acoustic expression of mathematical relationships.

That understood, it should come as no surprise that many musicians with all of this additional exposure to the subject through their craft, tend to excel in mathematics. But musical experiences alone are not the solution for what is at this point, a national decline in adequate math comprehension. Furthermore, current measurements indicate that around, “fifty percent of the U.S. population actually has some level of math anxiety,” (HuffPost, May 2015). Our educational institutions have taken on the brunt of the work of solving this enormously challenging problem, which will greatly influence the ability of future generations to navigate within our increasingly international, technology-driven marketplace.

We know that there is great demand for skilled and innovative workers in information technology, robotics, engineering, renewable energy, healthcare and international finance sectors. These are all areas, which require a strong background in STEM education, particularly mathematics. That means that math comprehension will play a huge role in the potential to find success for many young citizens. Businesses tackle such problems by considering the socioeconomic wants and needs of their customers: The best businesses attempt to understand customer’s daily lives; Use their specific dialect in presentations of products and services; And ultimately supply them with tools that allow them to more easily manage and/or enjoy their daily lives.

To an extent educational institutions may also, by considering more of the wants and needs of their students (i.e. customers), achieve progress and make improvements with greater certainty of success. To get there, to reach this future, we may need to reconsider our approach to learning in an increasingly digital era and possibly even encourage a complete transformation of STEM education as we know it, for the sake of our students and that of our community’s future.

 

An Interview w/ Dr. Keith Weber

Dr. Keith Weber

Dr. Keith Weber

On the 3rd of March, we had the honor of a conversation with Dr. Marco Molinaro from UC, Davis about his thoughts on STEM education. This week we have the good fortune of being able to continue the conversation with Dr. Keith Weber from Rutgers University, particularly in regards to the field of mathematics education. Dr. Weber, after studying both mathematics and instructional science throughout college, earned his PhD from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Today, Dr. Weber serves as a professor in the field of mathematics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey and is devoted to the study of undergraduate math education. An interview with Dr. Weber provided a unique opportunity to gain insight into how we can overcome the challenges involved in STEM education, across the country. You can read the results of Friday’s (4/4/16) Q & A with Dr. Weber, below:

Q. 1: What have you learned in your time spent as an educator in mathematics?
Dr. Weber:

“One of the most surprising things that I’ve learned is that, we often [inaccurately] portray mathematicians as a homogeneous lot, who don’t teach well and don’t reflect or think very much about their teaching. But through talking with mathematicians and observing their teaching, as well as observing them practicing their craft, I’ve realized that they are much different. Mathematicians are very interested in the nuances of their teaching. Most of them are trying different instructional practices for reasons that they’ve well thought out. I think that’s important, for conducting research in undergraduate mathematics education”.

Q. 2: What is the most important point from your speech, titled             Why Students Do Not Learn STEM Practices From Their Lectures?
Dr. Weber:

“The large meta point is that mathematicians and students view the same lectures in very different ways. The big takeaway is that we need to spend more time listening to students and examining how they view lectures, instead of how we view them. For example, students tend to focus on the board and hook in in on the formalism, on the linear logic involved in mathematics. But at the higher levels, it’s often anything but linear and formal. It’s much more conceptual. So one of the big moves in education is to make lectures more active and engaging for students (e.g. conversations, sharing thoughts)”.

Q. 3: How do you imagine technological innovations (e.g. virtual reality) may impact STEM education, particularly math classes, in the future?
Dr. Weber:

“In calculus there are computer assisted demonstrations and students are engaging in programming to understand the procedures of algorithms better, etc. I imagine there are similar opportunities in higher level courses, as well. For example, one of my colleagues is giving lectures in real analysis and using a dynamic geometry package to illustrate the ideas and concepts from calculus, which greatly rely on the notion of motion. This is tough to show with drawings but the package allows you to see things moving and converging to a point in a way that you don’t usually get with chalk-and-talk. So, there are computational methods for students that weren’t as readily available 20 or 30 years ago”.

Q. 4: What would you say to students at USF Tampa and at Rutgers University, who are considering a future with STEM?
Dr. Weber:

“I would encourage it. It’s very exciting. There are a lot of high-paying opportunities to do very interesting and creative work and there’s not enough people in the United States to do it, right now. And perhaps one the best things to do to prepare, is to learn basic physics and precalculus very well. There have been studies that have looked at students conceptual knowledge of these subjects and that correlates with much better rates of success in the college courses.

Also in general, having some knowledge of STEM related issues is important because these eventually become political issues that relate to citizenry and inform voting. Having a populace with a general understanding of STEM would allow for more informed debates and decisions. For instance, stem cell research, cloning and mapping the human genome. Many people don’t really understand what genetics, stem cell research, cloning, etc. is and this leads to people making decisions based on misinformation. So at least the discussion could be elevated to a higher level, instead of just having politicians engage in demagoguery and trying to convince people by appealing to ideologies in ways that don’t make a lot of sense. There are also issues with the [nation’s] budget, with the deficit and the debt, where you need to understand the magnitude of numbers. A lot of people don’t really see the difference between a trillion, a billion and a million. They’re all just very large numbers. But they’re arrived at through the application of calculus”.

 

The Future of STEM Education

Transforming STEM Education

Transforming STEM Education

Technological advances, such as those made in VR hardware, 3D printing, stem cell therapy, robotics, nanotechnology, etc. may help us to solve the problems we’re facing in math education and comprehension. And so we have come full circle: Math gave us a foundation, upon which to dream of and build our many modern technologies, from the first computer program to the recently completed Oculus Rift VR headset. Such tools may now further serve future generations with more advanced resources through which they may learn, grow and develop the next set of tools that will reshape their future. In the words of one of the world’s first technical visionaries,

“Mathematical science constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world, and those unceasing changes of mutual relationship which, visibly or invisibly, consciously or unconsciously to our immediate physical perceptions, are interminably going on in the agencies of the creation we live amidst,” (Ada Lovelace, Oct. 1842).

If we truly want to understand the world we live in, if we truly want to solve the big problems that inevitably await us, and if we truly care about the human beings, the descendants that will live in this world, long after us, then we will need to think about our approach to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. That is, our foundation.

 

Happy Computing!