Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Interview: Professor Gulden Karakok

This blog post is an interview of Professor Gulden Karakok, University of Northern Colorado. Professor Karakok works in math education and also facilitates IBL Workshops. Thank you, Prof. Karakok for sharing your insights!

Tell us about your institution and what the teaching environment is like, what courses you typically teach.
I work at the University of Northern Colorado at the School of Mathematical Sciences. Our university started as a State Normal School to train teachers in the area, in 1890s. Since then it is known for educating future teachers in the area, especially the future elementary teachers.  (Here is a short history, if interested: http://www.unco.edu/president/unc-history.aspx)

Our department offers a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics in three different emphasis areas: a Secondary Teaching, a Liberal Arts, and an Applied Mathematics, and most of our undergraduate students are part of the secondary teaching emphasis. We also offer a Ph.D. in Educational Mathematics, but different from many other math departments that offer Ph.D in Math Ed., we do not have a competing Ph.D. program in Mathematics. We have 6 mathematics education professors in the department (the ratio of math educators to other faculty members is 1:2). I guess the point I’m trying to make is our department focuses a lot on good teaching and our programs are geared towards that aim. 

The courses that I typical teach are mathematics content courses for preservice elementary majors, introductory linear algebra course (we have only one linear algebra course) and graduate level mathematics education courses. I was the course coordinator for the first two mathematics content courses for elementary majors for six years overseeing 10 to 12 sections each semester. Together with course instructors (i.e., faculty members and many graduate students) each semester, we designed and/or revised many activities; which was a great collaborative process. In addition to teaching such courses, I also run Math Circles for middle school teachers and local 4th-8th grade students monthly. 

How do you implement IBL?
Let’s say you walked in to my classroom at a given day, you will see students working on a task in small groups. I typically have students work on a problem or a set of questions in small groups and then present or discuss ideas/approaches/solutions etc. We usually end with a wrap-up whole class discussion, which can look very different each day. As students work on tasks in their groups, I walk around to assess what students are thinking, check to see if they are stuck, challenge their thinking by posing questions and make sure that each individual student is “doing” mathematics. Also, I make decisions on if we need to have a whole-class discussion on certain problematic ideas or if we need to present approaches that are seemingly different to make connections among ideas. I do not necessarily have all students present the same solution/answer, rather try to orchestrate presentations to tease out important mathematical ideas and make connections to the learning objectives of the activity or the course, in general. This working in small groups requires attending to your students’ thinking and progression as well as  decision making on your feet in the moment. It can be very exhausting, especially when you are teaching a new course. 

What are some of the benefits of IBL to your students?
I think the most important benefit for the students is that they “do” mathematics instead of watching some else do it for them. They get their hands “dirty”. On the first day I tell my students that I’m not a selfish person and won’t take away the joy of doing mathematics from them- they laugh, but they slowly understand what I mean as the semester progress. I think having them actively work on mathematics empowers them and gives them the ownership in their learning.  Here is a quote from one of my students:

“I thought it was so funny cause after my meeting yesterday with Dr. G. I went back to my dorm room and all my suitemates were like, ‘How did it go?’ And I was like, ‘My life has changed. I understand math.’ And I was just like freaking out and I busted out the three pages of the portfolio…We worked on stuff and it was weird that I understood because she didn't even tell me what to do, she made me do it myself and figure it out myself. And I thought that was weird because usually, like teachers in high school would be like ‘Oh, yeah, this is how you do it. Now go work on it yourself.’ But she was pushing me to think and try to find the process of how it works. And when I did it... I think that was why I was like so excited, because I figured it out myself, with help obviously, but it was my own thinking.”

Well, this approach of teaching is beneficial to me as the teacher because I can know where my students are in their development of mathematical ideas sooner than later. This (information) allows me to adjust my lessons and provide better learning opportunities for students.  We can skip some materials and focus on other areas as needed.

How did you learn to teach via IBL?
My first IBL teaching method was through the Emergent Scholars Program training that I attended one summer at the UT Austin. When I was a graduate student at Oregon State University, I was selected to run a recitation section for Calc 3 course in this ESP format. With a couple of other graduate students we attended the training during one summer.  I believe the ESP was created by Uri Treisman, connecting to his research work at UC Berkeley in calculus courses. So, the main idea was to create different, challenging tasks for students in our recitation sections for students to work on in small groups. Overall, I got excited to create tasks that were different from the textbook end of the chapter ones. Students were also excited because these tasks were allowing them inquiry into deeper mathematical ideas. After that experience, I worked in another project to create STEM activities and also run sessions using these activities. During this project and in many other projects, my advisor Dr. Barbara Edwards, Dr. Corinne Manogue (in physics) and Dr. Tevian Dray provided me opportunities to develop my teaching style. I’ve been so lucky that they allowed me to develop activities, observed me teach and gave me very helpful suggestions. 

What are your future teaching plans? Aspirations?
As a course coordinator, I have been trying to work with graduate students to give them similar opportunities that I had in my teaching as a graduate student. However, I was doing so many different things as the course coordinator and I did not spend enough time in coaching graduate students in their teaching. Hence, this is my future teaching plan - providing support to graduate students in teaching. This semester I’m teaching one credit seminar course for graduate students on teaching. We have been reading the MAA IP Guide, and discussing what they can implement or are already implementing in their classrooms. Their first assignment for the first week of classes was to read blog posts (e.g., Dana Ernst’s blog and the Discovering Art of Mathematics blog) about what to do during first week/first day and implement one idea in their class and reflect on how it went. I’m so excited that they are enjoying this experience and I love observing their class to see how great they are in their teaching. 

Anything else you want to add?
I’m not sure if such a teaching scholarship exists, but it would be great to spend a semester or a year to observe and/or co-teach with others to learn more about others’ great teaching practices. Such scholarships or fellowships would be great to spread what others are doing their classrooms to improve the learning of mathematics for others.