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IMPACTful Thoughts - The Teaching for PROWESS Project and Fostering Mathematical Proficiency in Students

By Dennis Ebersole posted 09-30-2021 23:30:20


After the unveiling of AMATYC’s IMPACT document, a group of AMATYC members recognized the need to help two-year colleges meet the vision in the IMPACT document and the two previous standards documents.  Considering the magnitude of this endeavor, it was decided that the best course of action was to apply for a large National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.  The outcome was the $2.9 million NSF grant, Teaching for PROWESS, that just started its second year of work. In Phase 1 of the project we are working with two community colleges, Clackamas Community College and Chandler-Gilbert Community College, to support them in increasing their use of active learning while transforming their mathematics departments through professional development and researcher-practitioner partnerships. Since PROWESS stands for PRoficiency, OWnership, Engagement, and Student Success, one outcome we hope to achieve is classrooms that foster mathematical proficiency in students.

Our definition of mathematical proficiency is more than procedural fluency. The Common Core Standards for School Mathematics states that rigor, a balance of procedural fluency, conceptual understanding, and applications of mathematics, is an essential principle for effective teaching and learning. On page 25 of the IMPACT document we are told:

“to be mathematically proficient it is necessary for students to

  •         Know mathematics procedures and execute core computations fluently
  •         View mathematics as relevant to their daily lives
  •         Demonstrate evidence of mathematical understanding
  •         Utilize the structure in the mathematics
  •         Make sense of and solve problems
  •         Apply mathematics to everyday situations
  •         Communicate mathematically and do so with precision
  •         Defend their work and critique the work of others.

Project participants have looked at a number of ways they can foster mathematical proficiency. In this blog we will look at just one approach.

         In my experience students care deeply about social justice issues and are surprised to learn that mathematics can be used to better understand these issues, to predict what will happen in the future if nothing is done to ameliorate the situation, and to help you argue a position. Global warming, Covid 19 cases, the death penalty, and income inequality are just a few of the issues my students have looked at from a social justice perspective and all have elicited strong opinions. One of my favorites is a long-term project where students (in small groups of 3 or 4) investigate the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling and then create a PowerPoint presentation showing and explaining what they found in their research, the mathematical models they used, different representations of the models, what the models predict will happen in the future if nothing changes, and any recommendations they have. If time permits, all of the groups present their PowerPoints and the other groups provide feedback using the rubric used to score the presentations. You can find this multi-week project with the rubric in the myAMATYC public library as The Glass Ceiling. The project can be expanded to include the pay gap for others such as black women.

         Does this task foster mathematical proficiency? Let’s look at the bullet points one-by-one.

  •         Does it require students to know mathematics procedures and execute core computations fluently?

The pay of men over time is approximately linear; so is the pay of women over time. What procedures and computations would they have to perform? What about women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies over time? What model will approximate this?

  •         Does it help students to view mathematics as relevant to their daily lives?

Would your students care about this inequity? I have only ever had two students (out of 100s) who rejected the data and said there was no glass ceiling and no pay gap.

  •         Does it require students to demonstrate evidence of mathematical understanding?

One instance among many is the need to interpret the slope of the model in the context of the situation.

  •         Does it require students to utilize the structure in the mathematics?

This one is not as obvious, but it is there. What do you see?

The remaining bullet points are built into the task and are clearly required of the students.

         Would you like to collaborate with colleagues who want to get better at using active learning principles in their classroom? Is your department interested in learning how to teach for PROWESS? Phase 2 of the Teaching for PROWESS project starts next summer. We are looking for 6 community colleges to collaborate with the Teaching for PROWESS leadership and the Phase 1 colleges. Each college selected will receive up to $50,000 per year for three years (July 2022-June 2025) to assist them as they transform teaching and learning at their institution. A request for proposals is available at Proposals are due April 15. 2022. Feel free to contact me at with any questions.