Inviting early college students to be mathematicians

Terrance Pendleton
Associate Professor of Mathematics
Drake University

This poster will share preliminary findings from work that investigates the ways in which student-led mathematics research projects, conducted early in students’ college careers and around questions that the students themselves pose, can spark students’ engagement and interest in pursuing advanced mathematics. The work has a particular focus on including students who have been historically excluded from mathematics majors. Need for this Work:Opportunities exist for college students to engage in mathematical research. For example, the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program provides one collection of opportunities for undergraduate students. Similarly, some students have opportunities to work with professors on research projects. Often these opportunities come late in students’ undergraduate careers. Barriers to getting to that point in STEM for historically marginalized students are well documented in the research literature – thus, they have fewer opportunities to experience authentic mathematics research. These experiences designed for students who have not yet taken Calculus are a potential avenue for broadening participation in advanced mathematics. Research Questions:•In what ways can undergraduate students, enrolled in pre-Calculus and Calculus courses, engage in developing and researching authentic mathematical research questions?•In what ways does participation in authentic mathematics research shift how students think about themselves as mathematicians or potential mathematicians?Outcomes. The PI has guided three cohorts of students through research projects based on students’ interests. For example, one student group investigated how music goes viral on social media by utilizing models in epidemiology. By participating in these research activities, students are able to use this opportunity to motivate the learning of new topics, techniques and tools that are usually presented in upper-level mathematics courses. Because students are invested in these tools prior to taking these advanced courses, they are able to use these courses to better support and build their own mathematical identities in a way that other students (without this experience) are unable to do i.e., using courses to better support their mathematical interests that were developed by way of their research experiences. Data collection, including in-depth interviews and surveys, uncover how students experience the seminar. One such example that captures the shifts students describe in their sense of themselves as competent mathematicians involved a day in which every student worked at their own whiteboard. Each student started using an SIR model to generate equations that would help them mathematize their own questions related mathematizing aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The students expressed astonishment at their capacity to generate whole whiteboards full of their own equations. Up until that point, the students’ experience of mathematics involved making sense of others’ ideas. Broader Impacts. The Broader Impacts of this work include shifting the field’s perspective about which students can conduct authentic mathematics research and when in their college careers they can conduct it. This has far-reaching implications for all undergraduates, but especially for traditionally underserved students who are often systematically shut out of advanced courses in mathematics.


Sarah Sword, Education Development Center