Decades of Research Pave the Way for Enhanced Auburn Mathematics Education

Auburn faculty and partners transform east Alabama mathematics education through dedication and funded research initiatives

For decades, professors and researchers in Auburn’s College of Education have made it their life’s work to advance the community of practice, body of knowledge and number of highly qualified practitioners in the field of mathematics education. They have found the secret to success through forging partnerships with mathematicians, other mathematics teacher educators, K-12 teachers, administrators and others concerned about mathematics education.

Dr. Marilyn Strutchens and Dr. W. Gary Martin

Dr. Marilyn Strutchens and Dr. W. Gary Martin

Dr. Marilyn Strutchens, Emily R. and Gerald S. Leischuck Endowed Professor and Mildred Cheshire Fraley Distinguished Professor of Mathematics Education, and Dr. W. Gary Martin, Emily R. and Gerald S. Leischuck Distinguished Professor for Critical Needs in Education, are renowned for their research, collaboration and innovative approach to mathematics education — and they have the grants and research funding to back up their reputation.

As they commemorate the 20th anniversary of one of their foundational projects — Transforming East Alabama Mathematics (TEAM-Math)  — a clear purpose still fuels their work.

“The need to improve mathematics education is serious, but it’s not new,” Martin said. “We’ve encountered this challenge throughout our careers. So we keep seeking innovative and collaborative ways to inspire a new generation of teachers and learners.”

TEAM-Math received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF)in 2003. The groundbreaking initiative highlighted a partnership of fifteen school districts, Auburn University’s College of Education and College of Sciences and Mathematics, Tuskegee University and business partners, which each had a common goal of improving mathematics education in East Alabama. Known formally as “The East Alabama Partnership for the Improvement of Mathematics Education,” TEAM-Math garnered nearly $14 million in NSF funding during its duration.

Findings from the project showed teachers who participated in professional development were more likely to adopt recommended instructional practices and their students were more motivated and performed better. The data also showed schools participating in the TEAM-Math project experienced significant gains.

Successes from this project guided their later work but their desired outcomes have always been about students — like Basil Conway, a three-time alumnus who received bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from Auburn’s secondary mathematics education program.

Conway was discouraged from pursuing advanced classes in high school. But one math teacher believed in his potential. That experience shaped his education and career. Now an associate professor of mathematics education at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia, Conway knows the impact each educator can have in students’ lives. He found support, inspiration, direction and a home for his intellectual pursuits with Strutchens and Martin in Auburn’s mathematics education program.

“They transitioned me from being a public school teacher to a mathematics educator and then to a teacher educator,” Conway said. “They prepared me to be a great teacher in the field, and the TEAM-Math grant was essential to me being able to pursue graduate school with them.”

Paving the way for a new generation of students

Strutchens and Martin’s work with TEAM-Math led to an increased emphasis on mathematics teacher preparation through a national consortium of universities called the Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership (MTEP), which they helped found and for which Martin serves as director.

In addition to a series of grants supporting MTEP, a nearly $1.6 million NSF-funded project focused on clinical experiences developed from the consortium. Collaborating with the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities and University of South Florida, Strutchens is the principal investigator of the Clinical Experience Research Action Cluster project, a multi-year research study ending this year, aimed at improving undergraduate secondary mathematics teacher education. Through the collaborative grant, several secondary mathematics programs have transformed their clinical experiences.

“At Auburn, we have been using the paired placement model — two interns and one mentor teacher — for the internship or clinical residency since 2014 and have had 26 pairs,” Strutchens said. “Most of the pairs felt that the internship helped them to become reflective, collaborative, student-centered, well-prepared beginning teachers. Mentor teachers have also stated that the model was beneficial to them.”

Participation in the Research Action Cluster has also led to promotion and tenure for several mathematics educators and researchers across the nation due to publications and other opportunities associated with the initiative.

Current projects such as Developing, Recruiting and Empowering Alabama Mathematics Teachers (DREAM Math) and a successor project to MTEP, informally known as MTEP 2.0, are NSF-sponsored programs rooted in collaboration and research. These initiatives involve significant partnerships with Auburn’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics and school partners and have secured more than $6 million in NSF funding in support of research, collaboration and program improvement.
DREAM-Math creates unique opportunities for non-classroom teachers with a mathematics background and an interest in teaching secondary math to become teachers. MTEP 2.0 continues to build a powerful and effective network focused on program improvement.

These projects amplify their work based on local and national partnerships and help to grow their community of scholars, sharing innovative practices as they work to transform mathematics education in Alabama and beyond.

Maintaining a student-centered focus

Growing a community of practice is at the heart of Strutchens and Martin’s work, and their research indicates this type of community advances mathematics education among teachers and students — like Ronnie Hall, a mathematics teacher at Valley High School in Valley, Alabama, and a current Auburn graduate student in mathematics education who also graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree from the program.

“I think math is involved in just about everything we do,” Hall said. “I’m learning for myself how true that is. I’m learning how to improve my students’ mastery of the content and how I can better help them communicate about mathematics, and in general, as they develop critical thinking skills.”

Significant research funding, a thriving community of scholars and new innovations in teaching practices fuel their passion and motivation, but at the end of the day, the outcomes that most drive Strutchens and Martin are found in the classroom.

“We’re creating a community with these promising new teachers,” Martin said. “They’re excited to join the profession and, along with their mentor teachers, we’re building a strong cadre of leaders in our region. And that’s the real endgame — fostering the next generation of mathematics educators.”