PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Laurel Cooley

F21 Class of 2005 Statement

Laurel Cooley is Associate Professor of Mathematics at CUNY-Brooklyn College.

What should the STEM learning experience be in the first two years so that students are motivated to persist in the study of STEM fields, become STEM majors, and pursue careers in STEM fields?

I believe that the best way to encourage STEM majors is to truly offer learning experiences that are both accessible and rich with exciting experiences, in order to promote a genuine curiosity in students. This may sound overly simplified, but I do believe the responsibility of the quality of the learning experience is that of the professors and whether or not we inspire a love of our subject in students lays decidedly on the experience we offer them- one class at a time. Freshman and sophomore level math (e.g., I, II, & III level calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, etc.) can be intimidating if taught in such a way that does not allow for open discussion, questions, and opportunities to examine the significance of the material.

In the last ten years there have been great strides in the pedagogy of undergraduate mathematics, and in particular those subjects taught in the first two years. For example, computer algebra systems have been developed that can demonstrate the graphical implications of calculus, differential equations and linear algebra, and by doing so greatly enhance the accessibility of the material. Writing in a reflective manner about the mathematics they are learning has been shown to engage and help students to better understand their mathematical thinking. Although there are many examples of success of such methods, studies have shown that these new pedagogic methodologies have not been widely adopted. In those universities where such practices have been successfully implemented, the common element is a dedication by the entire faculty, not only one or two.

Over the years, I have also found the culture of the classroom to be very important in the teaching and learning of mathematics. Math and science are considered to be the ‘hard’ subjects, and thus, are fraught with phobias and emotion. I believe that learning takes place when the atmosphere and activities in the class are exciting and welcoming.

These issues are really issues related to quality of teaching. In the STEM fields, often teaching is the part of our professional life that has the least value (both by our peers and by our administrators) and about which we spend the least amount of time evaluating and assessing. That culture also needs to change. In an atmosphere in which teaching and learning are truly valued, at all levels, I believe the sum total will be more STEM majors and, thus, more students prepared to pursue STEM-related careers.