Lessons Learned in Interdisciplinary Professional Development Designed to Promote the Teaching of Quantitative Literacy

Article excerpt

In this paper, we will describe the challenges and insights gained from conducting professional development workshops aimed at helping faculty prepare materials to support the development of students' quantitative skills in different disciplinary contexts. We will examine some of the mistakes we made, and misconceptions we had, in conducting the workshops and describe how we adapted in successive years to improve the curriculum materials developed during the workshops. In particular, we will discuss how we encouraged faculty to focus on clarifying student learning goals and developing effective assessment.

Much of the creative intellectual work currently be- ing conducted is occurring at the borders between disciplines and across disciplines, and there is a growing interest in bringing more interdisciplinary inquiry into the undergraduate curriculum. Yet our lack of familiarity and comfort with disciplinary frameworks outside the ones in which we were educated and work can impede that progress, limiting our ability to introduce new ideas and methods into our teaching.. In this paper, we will describe the challenges and insights gained from conducting profes- sional development workshops aimed at helping faculty prepare materials to support the development of students' quantitative skills in different disciplinary contexts. These disciplines included nursing, geography, education, soci- ology and history, in addition to the natural sciences and economics (Vacher & Lardner, 2010). In this report which summarizes our project evaluation findings, we examine some of the mistakes we made, and misconceptions we had, in conducting the workshops and describe how we adapted in successive years to improve the curriculum materials developed during the workshops. The faculty development project was entitled "Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum" and was funded from 2005 - 2008 by the National Science Foundation (NSF DUE # 0442629).

In particular, we overestimated participating teach- ers' understanding of the extent of their students' quantita- tive knowledge and understanding. Many of the modules written early in the project had unrealistic expectations of what students knew and how much could be learned from a particular module. We also underestimated the extent to which the participating teachers' interest in learning more about the technical aspects of Power Point and Ex- cel would divert the focus on student learning. We will explore these issues in more depth below and discuss the interventions we made to address these problems.

Background

The idea of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) was promoted in the United Kingdom in the 1960's and was first introduced in the early 1970's in the US. By the 1990's the idea was widely accepted and was being enthusiastically promoted by high-ranking college and university administrators (Bazerman et al., 2005). The idea of Math Across the Curriculum had a later start and to date has not yet gotten the kind of attention that WAC has. Related to, but distinct from, Math Across the Cur- riculum, the notion of quantitative literacy (also known as numeracy) has, in the last 10 years, captured the interest of many people concerned about undergraduate education. This interest goes beyond mathematics educators and extends to faculty working in many different fields.

In 2001, Lynn Steen (National Council on Education and the Disciplines, 2001) edited a volume entitled Math- ematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy in which he states:

Quantitatively literate citizens need to know more than formulas and equations. They need a predisposition to look at the world through mathematical eyes, to see the benefits (and risks) of thinking quantitatively about com- monplace issues, and to approach complex problems with confidence in the value of careful reasoning. Quantitative literacy empowers people by giving them tools to think for themselves, to ask intelligent questions of experts, and to confront authority confidently. …