August 13, 2018
Student-Centered Mathematics: Equity
This is the fourth post in a series about my university’s novel required math class for business undergraduates. Our course is called MATH 1112: Mathematical Analysis in Business. The class is organized around the applications of math in business settings, and students learn to work on problems using spreadsheets. The first post explains the goals of the course, the second post describes the process of putting it in place, and the third post describes the activities and structure of the course.
In that third post, I share an unanticipated benefit from the way we designed the course requirements and administered them in the learning management system. We had a near-daily digital footprint of student effort and achievement. I’ve worked with our student services staff to regularly use that data to coach students for success.
In this post, I share another unanticipated benefit from the work on this class, related to equity. Because this course eschews the traditional math course sequence, it also provides a more level playing field for all our students. Equity was not specific goal we set in creating the course. (The goals are explained in the first post.) But in retrospect, maybe it’s obvious that rejecting the standard course sequence gives a fresh slate to students who don’t come from the highest-achieving high schools. Almost none of the students from any high school have used Excel for its real power; all our students start together to learn this essential professional skill.
The equity potential for this class got on my radar screen in the first year we offered it. The director of our Office of Diversity Affairs, Kristi Ryujin (now the Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion), inquired whether students affiliated with her office could be part of the pilot offering of the class. Someone approaching me with recognition of the value of the class? She didn’t have to ask me twice. They were in.
There are multiple dimensions to equity in our school. One dimension is gender. Did you know that different majors have different gender splits? I have been vaguely aware of that pattern, for example, that engineering schools are majority male. I recently learned, though, that business schools are also majority male. Until recently, my own school hovered around 35% female. We are now working hard to “end the (gender) gap.” I believe that eliminating the calculus requirement is a step in the right direction. Do I think women can’t do math? Not a chance. Do I think there are contextual reasons that women choose one major over another? Absolutely.
Researchers on my own campus have studied the issues that women face fitting in to math-intensive and majority-male environments such as physics. As those authors say,
[W]hy [do] only some disciplines suffer from gender disparities in accomplishment and retention[?] …[T]hese gender gaps come at a cost both to women who lose out on the lucrative STEM jobs and to our society as a whole because a homogenous STEM workforce hampers scientific progress and technological innovation. (Lewis et al., Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 12, 020110 – Published 1 August 2016).
Other equity dimensions we attend to in our school are race, socio-economic status, and first-generation status. Research reported in The New York Times shows that classes that feature active learning help these underrepresented groups. This wasn’t the motivation for crafting the class, but it’s affirming to read, and further strengthens my resolve to spread the word about what we have done.
I appreciate Complete College America and the opportunity to share with you some of our successes. But I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that our course and our system is perfect. We have done a lot, but there is more to do.
On equity, there is one glaring challenge ahead of us. That big challenge is compatibility with non-traditional paths. We didn’t make the course different for the sake of difference. We made the class the best class we could, freeing ourselves from traditional notions of course sequencing. One negative byproduct of being unconventional is that it makes transferring in, say from community college, bumpy. I hope we can fix this bump as we build on what we have done so far.
My partners—originally David Grant and Dee Dee Shaulis and now Elizabeth Grulke from the Department of Math, and Al Smith and Kristi Ryujin from the Leeds School of Business—all had their own particular interest in the success of this course. I set out to do the right thing with a precious resource, our students’ attention in the required hours for math. The fact that these changes have also helped colleagues further their own goals for our students has been delicious icing on the cake.
Thank you for reading about what we are doing with our math requirement for Leeds School of Business students at the University of Colorado Boulder. I hope that some of you reading these posts will want to learn more. Lots of materials from the first year of the course live here. If you are serious about making a student-centered change in your math requirement for business undergraduates, I hope I can help you be successful.
Laura Kornish is a marketing professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is currently serving as the marketing chair. For more information, see http://leeds-faculty.colorado.edu/kornish/ and http://laurakornish.com/.