Pathways … Mathways … creating alternatives for non-STEM students.

The changes in pre-college mathematics are significant, and I am incredibly pleased with the work of my colleagues in dozens of institutions across the United States. The modified curriculum for these students has dramatically increased the proportion who achieve their goals, with a significant increase in the number passing their required college-level math course (statistics or quantitative reasoning). These gains have been achieved by putting thousands of students into a different path, wherein they avoid beginning and intermediate algebra.

We need to get over a myth about other students — the students who need at least a college algebra course, often because they are pursuing a STEM or STEM related field. [STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.]

Myth: STEM students are well served by the traditional developmental mathematics curriculum.

Alternate hypotheses: STEM students are ill-served by the traditional developmental mathematics curriculum.

As you may know, I have been in this work for over 40 years. Much has changed. However, developmental mathematics is currently bound by these constraints (which has been true for over 40 years):

Constraint 1: The pedagogy and content is limited by the preponderance of adjunct faculty assigned to developmental math courses.

Constraint 2: The content is based on textbooks reflecting a set of topics which were copied from a typical high school curriculum of 1965.

These constraints interact within our curriculum, including at my own college. The rigor of a developmental algebra course is most often established by the complexity of the procedure students would use to solve problems; these ‘problems’ are copies or slight variations of exercises seen in the homework. These exercises, in turn focus on the achievement of a correct answer to a well-defined problem either stated symbolically or in the disguise of a verbal puzzle (where such puzzles lack both value in the real world and value in their structure). We have a sense of pride if OUR algebra course includes conic sections or inverse functions, based on knowing that these topics await students in their college algebra course.

Some people might wonder if I think the presence of adjunct faculty in a classroom results in lower quality; definitely not — some of my adjunct colleagues are better instructors than I am. The constraint is based on the fact that these courses need to be ‘teachable’ by the pool of adjuncts available; the issues deal with the expectations that are reasonable for a group, rather than individuals. Full-time faculty may, in some cases, face similar limitations in the knowledge and skills they bring to a developmental algebra course; the difference is that full-time faculty have greatly enhanced access to professional development and networking.

In terms of data, the pathways work is fueled by the low pass rates in traditional courses (50 to 55%) compared to the typical 65% to 70% seen in the reform models (Mathematical Literacy, Fundamentals of Mathematical Reasoning, Quantway I). By saying that STEM students are well-served by traditional developmental mathematics:

We are apparently comfortable with 25% (or less) of students completing two semesters of developmental algebra.

The improved outcomes for the reform models is likely due to the fact that all 3 address both constraints — professional development for faculty AND improved content. By saying that STEM students are well-served by traditional developmental mathematics:

We are apparently comfortable with STEM students having to survive lower quality pedagogy and outdated content.

I see other issues, as well — such as the relative lack of technology in developmental algebra courses as a basic part of the content; calculators are banned … we avoid numerical methods … and remain out-of-touch with the world around us.

Again, I say that STEM students are ill-served by the traditional developmental mathematics course. The content is inappropriate, pedagogy is not supportive, and little inspiration is ever seen for why a student would persevere in their STEM field. STEM students need a reformed curriculum just as much as non-STEM students; the needs of society would suggest, in fact, that STEM students have a greater need for a reformed curriculum.

Take a look at the reform curriculum; it’s actually not that complicated. Instead of beginning algebra, use the SAME reform course as non-STEM (Mathematical Literacy, Foundations of Mathematical Reasoning, or Quantway I). Then … replace your intermediate algebra course with a reform course. In the New Life work, that reform course is called Algebraic Reasoning; you can see some information at http://www.devmathrevival.net/?page_id=1807 , or head over to the wiki http://dm-live.wikispaces.com/

The New Mathways project is starting their work on STEM path — take a look at this post http://www.devmathrevival.net/?p=1935

I hope to do a presentation on the Algebraic Literacy course at this fall’s AMATYC conference … as a ‘bridge to somewhere’! I believe that the Dana Center will also be there. I encourage you to learn more about the reform curriculum for STEM students. The work is important, students need it, and we will find it very rewarding.

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