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Jorgensen using NSF grant to boost students’ math proficiency and exposure to geoscience

Theresa Jorgensen, associate professor of mathematics
Theresa Jorgensen, associate professor of mathematics

A mathematician at The University of Texas at Arlington is leading a project to improve students’ mathematics proficiency while also increasing students’ exposure to and interest in the geosciences.

Theresa Jorgensen, associate professor of mathematics, is principal investigator of the three-year study, titled “Integrating Geoscience to Engage Majors with Mathematics: iGEM2”. The project is being funded with a $158,479 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Integrative and Collaborative Education and Research (ICER).

The impetus for the project came from a problem faced by universities nationwide – students’ struggles with mathematics courses leading to calculus. These struggles present difficult hurdles for large numbers pf students intending to major in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and technology) fields.

“Freshman-level math courses often form a roadblock for STEM-intended students, particularly when students do not test directly into calculus when they enter college,” Jorgensen said. “This is certainly true at UTA, an access-oriented university. Calculus is the first mathematics course in all natural science degree plans at UTA; however, algebra or pre-calculus are common mathematics entry points for STEM-intended majors, especially those who begin their major through nontraditional pathways.”

The other focus of the project involves introducing first and second year UTA students to the geosciences and related career paths before they decide on a major, with the goal of increasing the number and diversity of students who choose to major in the geosciences. This portion of the project will be spearheaded by a new partnership between the UTA Department of Mathematics and the School of Earth Science at The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio.

“We will do this by modifying the laboratory/recitation component of an entry level course, Math 1302 (College Algebra), by integrating the geoscience research of UTA and OSU faculty into the mathematics curriculum, reaching approximately 1,000 students per semester,” Jorgensen said. “We’re going to be using geoscience research problems to contextualize abstract mathematical concepts that represent roadblocks to students in freshman level mathematics courses.

“This project will have an enormous impact on a diverse population of at-risk students who aspire to graduating in a STEM degree.”

Weekly lab meetings in the mathematics course will incorporate video presentations by geoscience faculty members who will describe how mathematical skills are essential for their scientific research, Jorgensen explained. Exercises performed by the students will be cast in the context of those research projects, followed by problem-solving activities which synthesize mathematical concepts and apply the concepts with problems related to geoscience research. Through this approach, the mathematical abstractions will be connected with geoscience content which cross the fields of geophysics, environmental geochemistry, and oceanography.

Jorgensen noted that the geosciences incorporate a broad array of research methods from across all STEM fields and are therefore likely to be relatable to a broad range of STEM-intended students.

“In this way, we will empower beginning STEM students by placing abstract mathematical concepts in a scientific context at a critical transition which statistically constitutes a major stumbling block for many STEM-intended majors,” she said.

Jorgensen’s co-investigators are W. Ashley Griffith, OSU associate professor of earth sciences; Elizabeth Griffith, OSU assistant professor of earth sciences; and Nakia Pope, director of academic assessment and compliance at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

The project’s success will be measured by monitoring drop/fail/withdraw rates of the course; by evaluating students’ perceptions of the geosciences and their confidence in mathematics; and by tracking students through the declaration of their major and beyond. In the final year of the project (2020), the model implemented at UTA will be replicated at OSU, thereby demonstrating the model’s long-term transportability and sustainability.

Jianzhong Su, professor and chair of the UTA Department of Mathematics, said the project’s dual goals of improving student success in mathematics and increasing interest in geoscience make it a prime example of the interdisciplinary research which is a hallmark of the department and a cornerstone of UTA’s Strategic Plan 2020:  Bold Solutions | Global Impact.

“Dr. Jorgensen’s project has the potential to improve the success rate in entry-level mathematics courses for students who want to become STEM majors while at the same time increasing the number of students who choose to major in geoscience,” Su said. “It is this kind of collaboration that can provide solutions with broad impact. Building partnerships across disciplines is something we have been doing in the Department of Mathematics for many years and we look forward to doing much more of this kind of research.”

Jorgensen’s research and professional interests in mathematics focus on the mathematical education of teachers, vertical connections within mathematics curricula, and program development. Her work has brought her numerous accolades, including induction into the UTA Academy of Distinguished Teachers in 2016; a 2010 UT System Regents Outstanding Teaching Award; the 2006 UTA Honors College Distinguished Faculty Award; and the 2005 UTA Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.