CUNY Math Blog featured in The Washington Post!

Congratulations to Professor Jonathan Cornick, whose April 24th blog post was reprinted in The Washington Post this week under the headline “Should all students be proficient in algebra to graduate?”  The CUNY Math Blog was hyperlinked in the article, which is great exposure for the good teaching, research and thinking featured here.

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Celebrating Mathematics at CUNY

On Friday, May 15, the Office of Academic Affairs hosted a reception celebrating math education at CUNY and honoring the student winners of the 2015 CUNY Math Challenge as well as the faculty of the inaugural Calculus Boot Camp.

In her opening remarks, Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost Julia Wrigley welcomed the audience and noted the importance of math at CUNY. She spoke about Math Matters, a university-wide initiative supporting all levels of math education, from remediation to pre-calculus to the highest levels of scholarship. The Math Challenge and Calculus Boot Camp, she said, are two examples of how Math Matters is promoting excellence and achievement in the teaching and learning of math at CUNY.

CUNY's 2015 Math Challenge Grand Prize Winner Gabor Horowitz, Brooklyn College, with Ted Brown, Executive Director, CUNY Institute for Software Design and Development

CUNY’s 2015 Math Challenge Grand Prize Winner Gabor Horowitz, Brooklyn College, with Ted Brown, Executive Director, CUNY Institute for Software Design and Development

CUNY Math Challenge Committee Chair and Queens College Professor Ted Brown, who is also the executive director of CUNY Institute of Software Design and Development, spoke about the sixth annual Math Challenge, which engaged hundreds of undergraduate students from CUNY campuses across the city. He explained how this year’s competition took place in four rounds, featuring questions of increasing degrees of difficulty. The first and third rounds were conducted online, and the second and fourth consisted of in-person exams. Twenty-one winners, hailing from ten different community and senior colleges, received cash prizes and were presented with certificates of achievement during the reception. Grand Prize winner Gabor Horowitz, a senior at Brooklyn College, spoke about his love for math problems and his appreciation for the Math Challenge as an opportunity to be inspired by fellow CUNY students. See the full list of winners and their bios.

Mari Watanabe-Rose, a senior research associate in CUNY’s Central Office, spoke about the inaugural Calculus Boot Camp, which took place in July and August 2014 and provided hundreds of CUNY students with the opportunity to enhance their math skills before enrolling in calculus courses in the fall semester. Watanabe-Rose presented certificates of appreciation to faculty members from Baruch College, Brooklyn College, City College, LaGuardia Community College, Lehman College and New York City College of Technology, whose hard work and dedication to their students were essential to making this program’s first year successful. Professor Mahdi Majidi-Zolbanin from LaGuardia Community College spoke about his experience with Calculus Boot Camp, particularly how it encouraged him to think differently about his approach to teaching calculus and ways of helping students grasp the concepts in a short time frame.

The Math Reception highlighted just two of the many ways that CUNY’s students and faculty are engaging with mathematics. Learn more about these and other math initiatives at CUNY.

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Job for Math grads: $36,000/year plus benefits

For any community college or senior college students graduating this June as math majors, here’s an opportunity for a full-time job working with kindergartners in math clubs:

Work experience with young children is a plus, and training will be provided by Bank Street College of Education. This is part of a research study with MDRC, so those hired will have an opportunity to contribute to a research project, too.

Please share news of this opportunity with faculty and students!

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Math You Use?

More than 60% of students entering CUNY community colleges place into a remedial mathematics course. For the vast majority, that means they must pass an elementary algebra course and the CUNY Elementary Algebra Final Exam (CEAFE) to exit remediation and to have any chance of every obtaining a degree. Each semester, more than 50% of students in elementary algebra do not pass the course.

But why is algebra so important that we decree every college student must demonstrate current proficiency in a fairly rigid list of topics and skills before being able to graduate regardless of major? One very common answer is the tautology “Because algebra is part of a well-rounded education.” But where are the data and evidence to support this claim? Indeed, most conversations I have about algebra outside of academia tend to include the phrase “What was the point? I’ve never used it in ‘real life’”.

The truth usually lies somewhere in between, and to me, it seems that the answer really depends on what you consider to be algebra. If algebra is the monolithic list of topics that make up most college algebra courses, then I would agree with those asking “what is the point?” But most, if not all, of us use numeracy and mathematical skills in every day life, and so I wanted to know which are the important concepts from typical algebra courses that we use in “real life”?

As someone who teaches developmental and college algebra, researches abstract algebra and most recently helps his daughter with her algebra homework, I am fairly certain I use more algebra on a daily basis than the average person. So I decided to ask friends, family, colleagues in other academic disciplines, and even strangers on Twitter, how they use math and which concepts and skills are important to them in their work and daily life.

Here are some of the things they told me:

“in my day to day work/home, mostly % and unit rates/ratios, descriptive stats.”

“…as an insurance underwriter I spend my day working with percentages”

“Steamfitters use math for calculating piping offsets, structural supports, pipe fabrication, etc…… trig……. Some Calculus when dealing with refrigerants, chemicals, gasses,etc.”

“Interest rates for loans and credit cards. Budgeting for household expenditure.. Being able to understand how badly journalists and politicians use statistics.”

“Supermarket stuff every day : is X a better deal than Y based on volume and cost?”

“Working out how much paint to buy according to size of walls….. square metres!”

“In music, tempo, time signature, note values, etc.”

“Figuring out the damn tip on a restaurant bill. (Or who owes what in large parties). Life budgets. How much IS 20% off of that dress?”

“Algebra for Cooking: Scaling up/down and going from rectilinear to circular pans in recipes. “

“Adapting a knitting pattern to a new size that wasn’t included in the directions”

“We found ourselves delving into trig and Pythagoras recently working out an order for shutters for an eight part bay window.”

“trying to understand the long-term consequences of taking the student loan v. helping [our children] out….”

Summarizing, almost everything fell into these categories:

  1. Percentages – Almost everyone said this
  2. Proportions – this encompasses unit conversion skills related to supplies, materials, costs, nutrition, health, etc
  3. Descriptive Statistics – finding averages, describing distributions as well as being able to understand and interpret data and charts from business, politics, media, etc
  4. Geometry and Trigonometry
  5. Inferential statistics.

And in general, the common theme was in using arithmetic and logical reasoning skills in context rather than abstractly. Certainly, some skills from a standard algebra curriculum are needed for the above. I would say:

  1. Arithmetic, including order of operations – with a calculator!
  2. Simplifying linear expressions.
  3. Solving linear equations.
  4. Solving proportions, including percentage problems.
  5. Geometry including area and volume.
  6. Radicals including Pythagorean theorem.

However, I don’t believe operations on nonlinear polynomials, factoring and solving quadratic equations, simplifying complicated exponent expressions, and solving radical and rational equations are vital in order to master the aforementioned skills people use.

So the question is this: Why should all students be proficient in algebra to graduate, when an overwhelming percentage of successful adults in professional and even academic careers never use much of it? Before I offer my answer, a couple of caveats.

  1. Students on STEM degree paths need algebra.
  2. We should not create a two-tier system, which bars students from algebra. Every student should have the opportunity to take algebra if they wish to, and to be informed of the implications of not taking it and of the alternatives.

But what about the third type of student who is generally capable of the academic work required to obtain a degree in a non-STEM field and be a productive member of society, but is prevented or delayed from doing so because they failed elementary algebra?

In November 2014, The American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges issued a position statement on “The Appropriate Use of Intermediate Algebra as a Prerequisite Course”  that concluded

“NOW, THEREFORE, It is the position of AMATYC that: Prerequisite courses other than intermediate algebra can adequately prepare students for courses of study that do not lead to calculus.”

Some progress has been made, notably through the California Acceleration Project and their pre-Statistics Courses. At CUNY, there are some Community Colleges experimenting with Carnegie’s Statway and Quantway, as well as the very promising experiment mainstreaming remedial students into a Statistics course conducted by former EVC Lexa Logue and Mari Watanabe-Rose (pdf link).

But significant resistance remains, largely in the form of the aforementioned proclamation that “algebra is part of a well-rounded education.” I believe that we must continue to design and implement alternative pathways in mathematics to better serve the students who traditionally get stuck in remediation; Either through alternative remediation, or preferably in mainstreaming those students into an existing credit-bearing Quantitative Reasoning or Statistics course with extra support for their basic skills. These courses should be supported by proven pedagogy and contextualization of the topics.

Furthermore, I believe such decisions and designs must not rest solely with Mathematics departments, which are service departments in Community Colleges, but in communication with faculty in other academic departments who know what mathematical skills are required to be successful in their courses. We should partner with other disciplines, by collaboratively developing learning outcomes and sharing pedagogical techniques, to help them to support our students’ mathematical learning throughout their education. They deserve nothing less.

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MetroCiti: Professional Development Opportunity for Math Faculty

Arts and Sciences faculty may be interested in a professional development opportunity administered through Teachers College called MetroCiti.  Applications from community and senior college faculty are encouraged; this year Kingsborough, Queensborough and Hostos have faculty participating.  Fellows discuss key readings from the learning sciences and sociocultural research that bear on teaching for diverse students’ liberal learning, and develop pedagogical approaches to implement their findings.

Please share widely with colleagues.  The deadline is April 13.

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CUNY Math Challenge for students: registration closes tomorrow!

The 2015 CUNY Math Challenge is open to any matriculated undergraduate student; registration is open through February 18, 2015.  Sponsored by the Office of Academic Affairs and the CUNY Institute for Software Design and Development (CISDD) and supported by the Office of the Chancellor, the CUNY Math Challenge seeks to identify and reward CUNY’s best math talent.  Please encourage students to register!  Cash prizes range from $100 to $2,500.

The contest begins online at 9 am on Monday, February 9, 2015 and ends after an in-person exam at 10 am on Sunday, April 26, 2015.   Winners will be recognized at a reception in May.

Register at

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The Developmental Math Challenge and Statway at LaGuardia – Part I

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Statway: a Gateway to Graduation I have been an assistant Professor at LaGuardia Community College’s department of Mathematics, Engineering, and Computer Science since Fall 2012. My background is both theoretical Physics and Statistics, and I have an extensive teaching and … Continue reading

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Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Mathematics Instruction

CUNY’s Office of Academic Affairs has released the 2015 Application for the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Mathematics Instruction.

Full-time and part-time faculty at CUNY community colleges, comprehensive colleges, and senior colleges are eligible to apply.  Awards in the amount of $5,000 are based on evidence demonstrating that the faculty member’s students improved their skills in math as a result of a particular successful technique or action. Materials submitted by candidates include evidence of excellent instructional methods, as measured by improvements in student learning, within at least the past year. Eligible courses for the award are developmental or credit-bearing mathematics courses up to and including the first year of calculus.

Applications, which are due February 12, 2015, contain detailed information and criteria.  CUNY math faculty are encouraged to apply!  Questions can be emailed to:

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The Climate March Math

climate march by jonathan cornickThis past Sunday, did you see hundreds of photos from the People’s Climate March posted on your friends’ Facebook and kick yourself for having a lazy afternoon on your couch (as I kind of did)?

The New York Times reported that, on September 21, approximately 311,000 people participated in the March in New York City. The article said that the number was “… provided by 35 crowd spotters and analyzed by a mathematician from Carnegie Mellon University…”

There seem to be at least a few different ways of counting crowds, many of which use a basic “area times density” principle. They include the classic technique developed in the 1960s called the Jacobs Method, and updated, more accurate methods such as Yip and Watson’s.

While 311,000 was more than enough to make me wonder why I didn’t join this historic event, the event’s organizer claims that nearly 400,000 marched. There is no way to know whether this discrepancy comes from simple errors, or public relations motives. Or is there?

Professors: Do you think you can use this topic in any of your math classes? If so, in which course and how?

(Photo courtesy of Professor Jonathan Cornick at QCC, who was one of those Facebook friends)

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Evidence-Based Reform of Remedial Mathematics

I am an Associate Professor in the Mathematics and Computer Science Department at Queensborough Community College, and I have spent the last six years working on improving remedial mathematics.

When I started at QCC in 2007, students either placed into a semester long elementary algebra course, or a semester long arithmetic course after which, if they passed, they were required to take the elementary algebra course. The majority of students coming to QCC placed into one of these courses. Success rates were very low – for example only 3% of students placing into arithmetic graduated with an Associates degree within six years, only 10% of them even exited remediation, and in general passing rates in elementary algebra were consistently 35-40%.

I have been involved in several evidence-based reforms to address the low success rates of students who place into remedial mathematics. Each step the changes have been directed by a growing body of peer reviewed research, and by careful analysis of local statistical data.

In 2009 the QCC math department created a compressed 4-week, 20-hour version of the arithmetic course. This course was successful in the sense that students passed at a much higher rate, despite having the same curriculum and exit requirements as the traditional course. However, later analysis revealed that these students weren’t passing elementary algebra at a greater rate than before. The arithmetic course(s) seemed mainly to serve as an obstacle to student success. In Spring 2013 the department voted to eliminate the arithmetic course completely for a variety of reasons.

Together with my colleagues G. Michael Guy and Karan Puri, we studied the effect of the course elimination and found that students who would previously have placed into arithmetic were not adversely affected in the rate at which they passed elementary algebra. This study has been published in MathAMATYC Educator.

Of course, we are under no illusion that we have magically solved the issue of weak arithmetic skills in some of our students, but we believe that an arithmetic course is not the solution to this issue. Students, who learn an arithmetic skill in one course, aren’t likely to remember it 4-6 months later when it’s required in algebra if they weren’t given a context in the first place.

However, whether students take arithmetic or not, exit rates from remedial mathematics at QCC remain disturbingly low in the 35-40% range. In an attempt to address thiswe wrote an elementary algebra book in which we contextualize arithmetic skills and introduce them “just in time”. For example, we start with linear equations, which only require positive integer operations to solve, then review signed numbers, and then move on to linear equations with negative number operations. Initial results have been promising, in a study involving six instructors using this textbook students were nearly twice as likely to pass the course as opposed to a control group taught be instructors using the standard departmental text.

Our emphasis is on rethinking pedagogy and using time more effectively for student centered problem solving rather than shifting the issue to a lower course.

My research, supported this year by a Chancellor’s Research Fellowship for Community Colleges, will focus on these questions:

  1. How do students who would have formerly been placed into arithmetic perform in their credit math course(s)?
  2. How do students who take remedial algebra in classes with our contextualized textbook and student centered problem solving pedagogy perform in subsequent credit math course(s)?
  3. How do various attributes and attitudes influence student success, and what can we do inside and outside the classroom to support those which have a positive effect, and change those which have a negative effect?
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