Sunday, September 1, 2013

JPBM Presentation to PCAST

On July 18, 2013, I had the pleasure of being part of a presentation from the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM, the umbrella organization for AMS, ASA, MAA, and SIAM) to a joint meeting of the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST) and the British Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology. The title of the presentation was Mathematics Education: Toward 2025, and the focus was on the recent NRC report, The Mathematical Sciences in 2025 (see my column on this report from February 1, 2013). I was one of four presenters. The others were Mark Green, vice-chair of the committee that produced the report; Eric Friedlander, Past-President of AMS; and Frank Kelly, Chair of the British Council for the Mathematical Sciences (the British equivalent of JPBM). A webcast of the presentations and copies of the slides are available on the White House PCAST website.

The impetus for JPBM’s request to make this presentation was PCAST’s Engage to Excel report (see my column from March 1, 2012). While there is much in this report with which the mathematical community disagrees, especially the implication that mathematicians are not engaged in trying to improve undergraduate education, it was quickly decided that a positive message would be most productive. We told the Council that we appreciate the attention they have drawn to undergraduate mathematics education, we assured them that our community is actively seeking ways to improve the teaching and learning of post-secondary mathematics, and we offered to work with PCAST as we move forward.

There was a great deal of preparation in the months leading up to the presentation. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of Jim Gates’ role in making this happen. He has been a strong friend of the mathematical community, helping to ensure that our voice is heard. It was through his efforts that the July meeting was made possible. I also must emphasize the role that David Levermore played in helping to refine our message and coordinate the preparation of our presentations. I had hoped and expected that he would be included in those making the presentation to PCAST. Unfortunately, he was cut from the list of proposed speakers.

Leaders of all four mathematical societies helped to develop our position statement, which was distributed to PCAST in advance of the meeting and is available on the web as Meeting the Challenges of Improved Post-Secondary Education in the Mathematical Sciences. It includes a substantial appendix describing many of the activities of the JPBM societies that are directed toward the improvement of undergraduate mathematics education, the provision of evidence of what works, and the encouragement of widespread adoption of approaches to teaching and learning that are known to improve student outcomes. Following is the one-page opening statement from this document, written by Eric Friedlander, David Levermore, and myself and created with extensive feedback from and ultimate endorsement by the leadership of all four societies.


The mathematical sciences play a foundational and crosscutting role in enabling substantial advances across a broad array of fields: medicine, engineering, technology, biology, chemistry, computer science, social sciences, and others. Due to this foundational role, the delivery of excellent post-secondary mathematics education is essential to the present and future well being of our nation and its citizens.

We greatly appreciate the engagement of PCAST in the challenges of post-secondary mathematics education. A key finding of the 2012 PCAST Engage to Excel report is that mathematics education is a critical component of all undergraduate STEM degrees. We share this perspective of mathematics education as an enabler of STEM careers, provider of broad mathematics literacy, and shaper of the next generation of leaders in our increasingly technological, data-driven, and scientific society.

The report also found that current deficiencies in mathematics learning are partly driving the loss of STEM majors in the early college years. We acknowledge many of the shortcomings highlighted by the report. The wake-up call delivered by PCAST has sharpened the awareness of the mathematical sciences community of the need for intensive, broad-scale efforts to address these problems. We emphasize that efforts by a great many in the mathematical sciences community predated PCAST's report, that progress is being made, and that plans are in place to broaden these to a community-wide effort.

Our task is to encourage and help lead constructive actions that will address the difficult and varied challenges facing post-secondary education in the mathematical sciences. How should mathematics educators improve developmental education in order to enable students to aspire to STEM careers? How should mathematical scientists in colleges and universities augment their cooperative efforts with “partner disciplines” to best serve the needs of students needing basic university mathematics? How should mathematical sciences departments reshape their curricula to suit the needs of a well-educated workforce in the 21st century? How can technology be best used to serve educational needs? 

These questions must be answered in the context of a changing landscape. There are growing disparities in the preparation of incoming students. A third of all undergraduate mathematics students are enrolled in precollege level mathematics. At the other extreme, almost 700,000 high school students in the US completed a course of calculus this past year. The mathematical sciences themselves are changing as the needs of big data and the challenges of modeling complex systems reveal the limits of traditional curricula.

The NRC report The Mathematical Sciences in 2025 eloquently describes the opportunities and challenges of this shifting landscape. This report should serve as a springboard for initiatives in mathematics education that more closely intertwine the learning of mathematics with the appreciation of its applications. However, the mathematical community alone cannot bring about the scale of changes called for in Engage to Excel. Building on all the activities in mathematics education underway or that have arisen as a result of the PCAST report, we ask for PCAST’s help in promoting greater awareness, collaboration, and cooperation among all of the scientific disciplines who are working to prepare the STEM workforce of the future.