Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Why Change?

Remarks from "Why Change?" Panel
Robert Megginson, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute

So the question is: Why change?

One major reason is to account for diversity, and not just in the sense of the changing demographics of out campuses, although that is certainly a major sense. We need to account for many other forms of diversity as well. Let me suggest several ways that diversity is calling us to change.

The Diversity of Student Learning Styles

First, we are beginning to realize that our students bring a diverse collection of learning styles to our classrooms, (and truthfully always have,) and they don't all respond well to the teaching methods that almost all of us saw all the way through our higher education. This is an area in which mathematics and science educators have a lot to say to us, and we need to start a serious dialogue with them. Some attention to modern thoughts about pedagogy can make all of our classrooms more effective an interesting, both for out students and for ourselves.

The Diversity of Cultural Backgrounds

Next, we do need to account for the diverse cultural backgrounds our students bring to the classroom. Some dozen years ago I was part of a group of Native American scientists to whom the new proposed standards for teaching science were being presented. In response to a question about how the standards addressed culture, the presenter responded with something like: "That is one of the marvelous things about science. It is culturally neutral. Truth is truth."

I have never seen anyone lose an audience so immediately and finally. It certainly is true that a hydrogen atom has one proton in its nucleus. Period. And it certainly is true that one of the major differences between bald and golden eagles is what they eat. If you want to find bald eagles, go where you'll find fish. Golden eagles? Field mice. But which of those truths you consider more important may depend upon whether you were raised on a reservation where eagles are considered sacred. The value placed on different scientific truths is anything but culturally neutral, and we need to account for that in our classrooms.

The Diversity of Student Preparations

Further, we need to account for the diverse levels of preparation our students are bringing to our classrooms, rather than just complain that they seem to us to be less traditionally well prepared that in the golden days of out academic youth. One of my personal heroes is Clarence Stephens, Chair of the Mathematics Department at SUNY – Potsdam in the late 1960s through middle 80s. His philosophy of undergraduate mathematics education was that students respond better to challenge and higher expectations, coupled with a support system that fosters success, than to endless remediation. And it's hard to argue with his results. During his last three years as Chair, this small upstate SUNY campus was third in the nation in number of mathematics bachelors degrees granted each year, beaten out only by UCLA and Berkeley one year and UCLA and Illinois the other two. And this was not done by lowering standards in any sense, but rather by setting high standards for both the learning and teaching of mathematics. The roomful of Ph.D. mathematicians who earned their undergraduate degrees in Stephens' programs will testify to that.

The Diversity of Career Aspirations

Also, we must account for the diverse uses out students will make of the science and mathematics we teach them. Perhaps, rather than continuing to say, "Well, I know that most of the students in my classrooms won't be going to graduate school in the area but I don't want to turn off those who will," it's time to change the emphasis a bit by saying, "Well, I do want to interest and excite those who might be going on to graduate school, but I also want to interest and excite the vast majority, in most cases, who won't, since they will make up the body of the educated citizenry of the 21st century who are likely to decide the long-term fate of out disciplines. (We already heard today about the reward system!)

The Diversity of Scholarly Goals and Roles for Faculty

Finally, we need to account for that fact that we have an increasingly diverse faculty with increasingly diverse career goals, not all of which may amount to wanting to be able to have carved on their tombstones, "I published over 100 papers!" I am not knocking the research enterprise in this nation; it is extremely important for our future, and also happens to be what puts food on my table as an administrator at a research institute. But, it is also important to have relevant curricula that, for example, will send Native American engineers back to their reservations to deal with the infrastructure problems their people face. When faculty feel a strong need to work on such issues, we must have something better to say to them than, "Well it's okay to work on these matter in your spare time, but keep in mind that, ultimately, all you will be rewarded for, for the next n years as n -> infinity, is the quality and quantity of your publications." We need to find diverse roads to success for faculty who are doing creative, diverse activities that are contributing to the success of out disciplines. Thank you!