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Director brings fresh ideas to first year math


October 31, 2008

One common denominator for nearly every incoming student at ASU is a first year mathematics class. According to the new director of the program, the student’s experience with first year math is a good indicator for overall success in college. Additionally, first year math is the critical foundation for students entering the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“First year math scores are much better predictors for success in college in any career, not just in science, technology or engineering, than pretty much anything else,” says Fabio Milner, a professor in ASU’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the new director of first year mathematics.

“In that sense the burden falls upon our shoulders to make the students successful, because that would suggest they would then be successful in getting their degrees,” says Milner, who joined ASU this semester from Purdue University to lead the creation and delivery of an innovative curriculum in first year mathematics courses.

“The importance of a successful first year mathematics program cannot be overstated,” says Sid Bacon, dean of natural sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It provides the basis for numerical literacy, a springboard for more advanced mathematics required for many disciplines in the sciences and engineering, and – perhaps most critically – it is crucial for student success and retention.”

This academic year, an estimated 18,000 students – incoming freshmen to graduating seniors from all majors – are expected to enroll in a first year math class on the ASU Tempe campus, and another several thousand students on the Polytechnic, Downtown Phoenix and West campuses. First year mathematics classes include College Algebra, College Mathematics, Theory of Elementary Mathematics, Elementary Statistics, Precalculus and several “flavors” of Calculus, including Business Calculus, Engineering Calculus and “regular” Calculus.

If those stakes weren’t high enough, government, industry and community leaders, including Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and Science Foundation Arizona, are taking steps to increase STEM education, claiming it is critical to the future of each student, as well as the state’s.

“The STEM disciplines really start in middle school with mathematics; math underlies all of science, technology and engineering. The importance cannot be stressed enough,” says Milner. “There is no possible way to produce an engineer, a scientist or anybody in any kind of technology without some level of mathematics beyond first-semester calculus. For these students, their first year mathematics course provides the basic groundwork.”

First year mathematics also is important for those students who are not STEM-bound.

“Every major at ASU has a math requirement,” says Milner.

More importantly, however, many of the first year math courses are designed to teach math skills for students to fend for themselves and become discerning adults, whether it’s selecting between car loans or finding the most efficient route for a delivery truck.

“If you are offered two loans to buy a car, and one has a lower monthly payment, you have to understand that with some loans you will be paying twice as much money in interest,” says Milner, noting this is a math problem that comes up in the MAT 142 course.

Students who are more engaged with their first year mathematics class are emerging with better understanding and better general problem-solving skills, notes Marilyn Carlson, a professor of math education in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Carlson serves on a national committee wrestling with this problem and says there “is a sense of urgency to get more students to have success in math.”

Carlson’s research reveals that in both college algebra and precalculus there is a need for a greater coherence and a greater focus on ideas and word problems.

“Such shifts in the curriculum and instructional delivery are needed to empower students, and over time, lead to students’ emerging as more confident and powerful thinkers,” she says.

“There is a call both locally and nationally for first year math to engage students in authentic problem-solving activity and to provide more quantitative literacy, for example, how to read graphs in newspapers, in addition to  solving computational problems,” says Carlson, who, along with her research group, is involved in pilot projects that are looking at more effective ways to use computers to enhance the learning experience.

And, it is in part this connection between teaching first year mathematics and research in math education that attracted Milner to leave Purdue University for Arizona State. Milner, who has a bachelor’s degree from Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, and master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago, started teaching at Purdue in 1983 and became a professor there in 1994.

“Math ed should underlie the delivery mode in which we teach; math ed serves more than one purpose,” he says. “The main charge, by definition, is to produce K-12 teachers. On the other hand, on the research side, faculty researchers are looking at delivery modes, how the teaching should be done. They are uncovering ways in which people learn.”

And, through such research, ways to teach sometimes emerge automatically. Milner cites as one of the strengths and differentiators of ASU, the large numbers of minority students, particularly students from a Hispanic or Native American background. According to Milner, research shows that Native American and Hispanic students “seem to thrive more in a social environment, so group work, rather than individual work, while important for all students, may be a necessity for these minority students.”

Many of the faculty members who teach first year math courses have a background in math education and an interest in what makes people learn, Milner says. “They enjoy designing projects on how to improve our teaching to help our students learn here in college.”

But it’s more than the connection between teaching and research that brought Milner to Arizona.

“I have had an increasing desire to have a greater impact on education and learning. This is my 34th year in teaching and no matter how prolific a mentor is, you never really have 100 or more graduate students. But, where policy is being made and the study of methods to help the masses learn ... that’s where the possible impact to hundreds of thousands or millions of students come in,” Milner says. “If one is after impacting the largest number of students, then this is the place.”

Dean Bacon, who chaired the search committee for the director of first year mathematics, says: “Fabio is a highly regarded mathematician who impressed us with his interest in bridging research in mathematics education with the delivery of first year math, his vision for how we might do that at ASU, and his strong desire to make a difference in the lives of our students.”

Besides the challenge of the university’s size and the math ed component, the strong research going on at ASU in numerical analysis and mathematical biology were among other reasons Milner was attracted to ASU. Milner’s research is in applied mathematics, mathematical biology, mathematical modeling, nonlinear partial differential equations and numerical analysis.