PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Daniel Birmajer

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Daniel Birmajer is Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Nazareth College.

What is your vision of a robust research-rich learning environment?

My vision on the characteristics of a robust, research-rich learning environment and on how to better serve our students is to promote a problem-solving, hands-on environment in all math and science classes, and to generate genuine engaging questions that involve the students in a quest for possible solutions. In this class environment, we should try to provide our students with the time and the tools to understand, apply, and analyze hypotheses and form conclusions. If we hope to offer our students a first-hand experience in how mathematicians and scientist do research in their respective areas, it is fundamental to promote a safe environment where the students do not feel the pressure of being tested and graded constantly, and in which their work is seen as a valuable contribution to the learning community. At the same time, we need to emphasize the responsibility that the students assume with each other in a community of learners, encouraging class participation and collaborative work.

Of course, there are several issues that need to be well thought out in order to build-up a valuable research-oriented learning environment, having in mind that the work in class is only a good vehicle in which to involve students to learn outside the class, at their own time and at their own pace. Maybe the essential component in order to foster critical thinking and develop good reasoning abilities is to engage the students with real-life problems, the kind of problems that only come from an interdisciplinary way of thinking. This is, in my opinion, the critical aspect where collaboration between faculty members in different areas makes a difference in the quality of projects and activities that could be promoted in the classroom.

One of the obstacles that we face as a learning community is the grade-oriented culture that seems to reduce the objectives in any course to the final grade letter. This kind of short-termed learning is usually forgotten after the exam. It is essential for quality and sustained learning to recreate a natural critical learning environment where the students feel safe to explore, to ask and to debate. In this process, we have to find out how the students are learning and we have to provide the adequate feedback before assessing them. A complementary way for promoting a research-rich learning environment is to generate initiatives and to raise awareness for funding undergraduate research opportunities. This is particularly relevant for those students with the interest and potential to pursuit grad school in math or sciences. It is also our responsibility with the future of undergraduate STEM education to promote scientific and technological awareness programs for our communities, focusing in multicultural inclusion.