Calculus readiness comes into sharp focus as South Carolina educators gather in North Charleston
The future of South Carolina’s workforce was at stake as more than 60 educators from across the state gathered in North Charleston for two days to begin laying the groundwork for a grand plan to better prepare students for calculus, a basic requirement for an engineering degree.
The workshop was funded by the National Science Foundation (EEC-1737686) and Clemson University’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.
It was organized in collaboration with SC INCLUDES, a statewide organization whose central mission is to bring together the K-12 system, technical colleges and higher education to work toward diversifying the engineering workforce so that it is representative of the population as a whole.
National- and state-level data have shown that engineering students who start college math at a level below calculus I are much less likely to persist to a degree, whether it’s because of the class itself or associated factors. Women and other groups underrepresented in engineering are most likely to struggle.
The workshop was part of a two-year, statewide study conducted by SC INCLUDES. The study, the largest of its kind in South Carolina, includes four 4-year institutions, all 16 state technical colleges, and 118 high schools in 43 school districts along the Interstate 95 corridor, where the poverty rate is 70 percent or higher.
It comes as some of the nation’s students– who will become part of the workforce–are becoming disenfranchised for a number of reasons, including their ZIP codes, said Adrian B. Mims, Sr., a South Carolina native who has visited some of the country’s most troubled schools as the founder and director of the National Calculus Project.
“If you believe that every single person regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation deserves a dignified next step and a dignified life, then it should be a priority to make sure there is access and opportunity for everyone,” Mims said.
The challenges that educators identified in the workshop ranged from students’ math anxiety and lack of soft skills to curriculum mismatch and opportunity inequity.
The solutions were just as varied and included peer mentoring, more accurate math placement, forging partnerships between industry and K-12 classrooms, a better alignment of math curriculum from kindergarten to high school to first year of college, and educating parents about the opportunities and expectations for high-paying STEM jobs.
Participants widely agreed that the dialogue should continue after the workshop and that academic institutions at all levels need to collaborate with each other and industry. Most of the participants came from high schools, technical colleges, and four-year institutions but some were from elementary and middle schools.
Paige Smith, a program director at the National Science Foundation, said that gathering representatives from the entire educational system to talk about problems and solutions was an essential step and can be leveraged as the group moves forward.
“Doing the things that you’re doing today is very powerful and impactful,” Smith said. “The problem around broadening participation is huge, and huge problems need huge solutions. That’s why the National Science Foundation supports partnerships and coordination for measurable and sustainable progress in STEM fields.”
The workshop was called WRAPPED, an acronym for the Workshop on Reducing Attrition in Precalculus Pathways to Engineering Degrees. Its chief organizer was Eliza Gallagher, an assistant professor of engineering and science education at Clemson University.
“WRAPPED was a huge success,” she said. “I learned a lot from the participants. We had more than 60 people from all over state join us. That allows us to begin the process of identifying the challenges we face and how we can overcome them by working together for system-wide change. These are the kinds of conversations we need to have to widen the pipeline from academia to industry and ensure that it is filled with diverse talent.”
A rising need for engineers in South Carolina is heightening the urgency. Manufacturing employment has grown 19 percent since 2011, and 59,000 new manufacturing jobs were announced from 2011-17, according to the state Department of Commerce.
Workshop participants broke up into groups of about five to 10 to identify the challenges they face and brainstorm solutions.
Geniffer Bookhardt, the associate director of admissions and recruitment at South Carolina State University, said that engineering is a popular major but that high school transcripts have left her doubting that students understand what is required to succeed.
“As educators, guidance counselors, professors, and teachers, we need to make sure the students have a greater understanding of what preparation they need to be successful,” she said. “We just need to get back to the basics from elementary school up and keep enforcing it.”
Stephen Mason, associate vice president for economic and workforce development at Denmark Technical College, said he hoped the
workshop would help address a shortage of math teachers and lead to new ways of incorporating math into the classroom.
“These students seem to do much better when they can apply it and when we can show the reason this is going to affect them in the long run and how this is going to be a part of their life,” he said.
For some, the preparation for calculus starts as young as elementary school
Bernard Frost, math specialist for Spartanburg School District 7, said he is helping merge Houston Elementary and a Title I school, Chapman Elementary, into one new school, Drayton Mills Elementary, with a focus on problem-based learning.
“Students need more exposure to it, not just to get into college but to survive college and to be successful outside of it,” Frost said. “With or without a science major, they need to handle complexity on their own independently and critically think to move forward in any field. I think pushing that at the lower level will move them truly to the next level in any field they go into.”
Students who are ready for calculus in high school should be pushed into it, especially in schools with good calculus programs and teachers, said Alisa Hobgood, a math teacher at West Florence High School and the vice president-elect of the South Carolina Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
“I think it’s important to push them to that level, so they have more opportunities,” she said. “I think sometimes kids limit their opportunities and choices because of their fear and anxiety and willingness sometimes to work.”
Cadets at The Citadel want to finish with their class, which means graduating from the college in four years. But if those majoring in engineering aren’t ready for calculus, they could be left behind, said Mei Chen, professor and department head of math and computer science at The Citadel.
“If we can prepare them before they arrive at The Citadel so they will be ready for calculus I, then I can see for sure they will finish in four years,” she said.
The workshop was held in Clemson’s new state-of-the-art Zucker Family Graduate Education Center on the banks of the Cooper River. It was covered live on Twitter at @ClemsonCECAS with hashtags #SCIncludes and #NSFfunded.
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences at Clemson, thanked the participants for their time and service. He said the workshop was a great start to creating new pathways, policies and practices for equity and inclusion.
“Our state is coming together to broaden participation in the STEM workforce,” he said. “The problems we face in South Carolina are very much the same as the problems in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and other states. The solutions we develop in South Carolina will support not only our state but the nation’s economy and continued leadership in the global STEM enterprise.”