Setting a New Standard

January 12, 2011

MSU launches Institute for Research on Mathematics and Science Education with major conference in Washington

By Nicole Geary

WASHINGTON D.C.—Michigan State University called together 50 of the top mathematicians, mathematics educators and researchers in the United States this fall to begin tackling one of the most important policy issues in education: how to improve mathematics learning for all children.

Given that 37 states and the District of Columbia have recently adopted shared standards in mathematics, the conversation also focused on the most immediate challenge: How can we make the Common Core State Standards work?

Led by well-known scholar William H. Schmidt, the two-day colloquium on mathematics education in Washington, D.C. helped pinpoint issues for updating curriculum, preparing teachers, setting policy and especially pursuing new research directions as much of the country attempts to adopt a clear and consistent framework for teaching mathematics.

The gathering also gave MSU the opportunity to reintroduce itself as a national leader in mathematics as well as science education. While in Washington, Provost Kim Wilcox joined the deans from the university’s colleges of Education and Natural Science to announce the creation of a new, interdisciplinary research center.

The Institute for Research on Mathematics and Science Education is expected to continue bringing together top scholars from the science and education ?elds—within and beyond MSU’s campus—and to facilitate projects that can address the most pressing challenges related to learning math and science, from kindergarten through the ?rst years of college.

“It seems to me it’s a really unique opportunity in time to have this institute be introduced,” said Jere Confrey, a presenter at the colloquium and the Joseph D. Moore Distinguished University Professor of science and mathematics education at North Carolina State University.

“Michigan State has had such an important role to play historically around curriculum and content areas. It represents a uniquely quali?ed group to consider the policy implications of the standards and to provide some advice to the nation.”

A team approach

Schmidt, whose comparative studies have brought to light critical issues in U.S. mathematics achievement, was appointed interim director of the new institute.

John Easton, director, Institute of Education Sciences

He said excellent research on math and science education demands more involvement from mathematicians, biologists, chemists and other experts in the relevant subject matters. Likewise, partnering with educational researchers who deeply understand learning, pedagogy and assessment can help scientists translate their ?ndings to the classroom.

Research grants to scientists and mathematicians have increasingly required principal investigators to integrate educational outreach activities into their projects.

“This institute will provide support for that kind of collaborative work and increase it to a larger scale,” said Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor in the College of Education and the Department of Statistics and Probability. “We know it’s really important for students to receive a strong foundation in math and science, and this is about the research needed to accomplish that.”

Initially, research af?liated with the Institute for Research on Mathematics and Science Education will focus on mathematics, biology and physics, particularly in grades 7–12 and the ?rst years of college. Projects will address issues of preparing high-quality teachers, educating individuals pursuing science-related careers and developing general mathematics and scienti?c literacy.

The initiative is co-administered by the College of Education and the College of Natural Science and has been receiving guidance from an advisory board of leading MSU professors—including those representing cutting-edge projects such as the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (frib) and the beacon Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.

Provost Wilcox, who provided institutional funding for the institute, says creating new research centers is something university leaders can’t take lightly in current economic times.

“But this is particularly important,” he told the audience in Washington.

“MSU faculty members understand the importance of math and science education in today’s society, as well as the responsibility they have to the nation to help make a positive difference in these areas.”

Starting with a challenge

The Common Core State Standards represent a dramatic and controversial development in the teaching of mathematics by intending to describe what all k–12 students should understand and be able to do, no matter where they attend school in the U.S.

The standards were released by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Of?cers in June and are now being implemented by a majority of states. Leading scholars are just beginning to determine how the new framework will impact students and educators, and what steps are needed to study and improve the process.

Some individuals who were consulted in developing the math standards were in attendance for the kick-off colloquium Oct. 27 and 28 at the Fairmont Hotel, including Schmidt, Confrey, Hyman Bass, Jason Zimba and keynote speaker William McCallum, who led the national work group.

“We have an opportunity to do research in a way we couldn’t do before,” said McCallum, a University Distinguished Professor of mathematics at the University of Arizona. He said the MSU research institute has a promising role to play.

“It’s building on a lot of efforts to bring together the math community and the math education community, and Bill has the ability to do it.”

William Schmidt

Most recently involved with an international study of mathematics teacher preparation (see above), Schmidt presented data on the unequal opportunities for students to learn important math concepts now existing across the country and how those inconsistencies affect the nation’s ability to compete with high-performing nations.

“This is the hard reality of American education—it’s why we need standards, and why they will be dif?cult to implement,” he said in summary during an evening reception to an audience that included alumni, donors, foundations, organizations, legislative staff and government representatives. The program also included remarks from Provost Wilcox, College of Education Dean Carole Ames, College of Natural Science Dean James Kirkpatrick and John Q. Easton (right), director of the Institute of Education Sciences (ies), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Other prominent speakers over the two days included marketing expert (and MSU graduate) Jim Taylor of the Harrison Group, who provided insights on how American families view the state of education, and Bruce Alberts, a biochemist and current editor-in-chief of Science magazine.

MSU plans to publish each of ?ve papers that were commissioned for the colloquium along with proceedings from the conference, which should be available online in 2011.

The event was intended to help establish a more de?nitive research agenda for faculty af?liated with the institute—and their colleagues—in the area of mathematics. It was the ?rst of several events to be held nationwide, with forums on biology in Chicago this spring and on physics in San Francisco next fall.

On the Web

Common Core State Standards

MSU Institute for Research on Mathematics and Science Education

IRMSE Advisory Board

•           Wolfgang Bauer, Department of Physics and Astronomy

•           Konrad Gelbke, National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory

•           John Merrill, Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics

•           Richard Triemer, Biological Sciences Program

•           Yang Wang, Department of Mathematics

•           Kenneth Keegstra, Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center

•           Glenda Lappan, Department of Mathematics