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National leader in mathematics reform to discuss student success and equalization

By Katharine de Baun

How can universities better prepare students to meet the urgent needs of the 21st century? What best practices can help enhance and equalize student success, especially among those from diverse backgrounds? These are just a few of the topics William "Brit" Kirwan, a nationally recognized authority on mathematics reform and other critical issues facing higher education, explored as part of a special lecture hosted by the College of Science on Tuesday, January 24, 2017.

Watch a his lecture on YouTube.

Dr. Kirwan is currently the executive director of the Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics project, and Chancellor Emeritus of the University System of Maryland (USM). His talk “The Student Success Imperative: Challenges, Opportunities, and Responsibilities,” came at an opportune time given the state and national dialogue taking place.

Kirwan presented evidence-based strategies and pedagogies, on both a university-wide and classroom-level, that provide hope for greater and more diverse student access and success, even in a time of diminishing public investment in higher education. He also highlighted key trends, including making smart use of new technologies, developing an active learning “emporium model” and defining alternative pathways for degree requirements in mathematics, among others.

Nationwide, colleges of science, where foundational courses are taught in mathematics, statistics and sciences, play a critical role in student success, and ultimately in college completion. Kirwan offered a clear picture of how universities and faculty must evolve quickly to increase students’ quantitative literacy, driven by the reality that math is the single largest roadblock for many to affordable degree completion and because in today’s data-driven world, mastery of mathematical and statistical concepts has become essential for success in highly desirable STEM disciplines and careers.

Many contend that mathematics and statistics can make us better thinkers. Kirwan explained that math is not just a linear winnowing process to weed out the (white, male) Einsteins from the masses, but a fundamental tool for all that should be opening more doors than it closes.

William Kirwan standing in office space

William “Brit” Kirwan, Chancellor Emeritus of the University System of Maryland

Kirwan also explored how a sea-change is needed in how trajectories in K-12, college-level, and graduate-level math education are viewed. Too often, implicit bias or “expectancy effects” on the part of teachers not only restricts what could be a broader, more diverse stream of students into higher math (i.e. calculus and beyond), but shortchanges math at all levels as a discipline benefiting clear thinking and analysis across the curriculum.

While on campus, Kirwan met with OSU leaders and administrators, faculty in the Departments of Mathematics and Statistics as well as education faculty and students to explore some of the above topics in more depth.

Prior to his Chancellorship at USM (2002-2015), Kirwan served as President of The Ohio State University from 1998-2002 and previously as President of the University of Maryland, College Park for 10 years and a mathematics professor there for 24 years.

Among Kirwan's many honors is the 2010 TIAA-CREF Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence. Considered one of the nation's top higher education honors, this award recognizes outstanding leadership and commitment to higher education and contributions to the greater good. Dr. Kirwan was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002.

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