Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Interview: Professor Stephanie Salomone, University of Portland

Stephanie Anne Salomone, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Chair, Mathematics Department
University of Portland

Tell us about your institution and what the teaching environment is like, what courses you typically teach.
I teach at the University of Portland, a comprehensive Catholic university in Portland, OR. I started here in 2005, my newly-minted PhD from UCLA in hand. At the time, there were 9 full time mathematics faculty, and four of us were brand new to the department and new to the profession. We were a traditional department, as far as teaching goes.

Things are substantially different now. We have grown to fourteen full-time faculty, with several colleagues who teach using active-learning strategies rather than lecture. We have several practitioners of IBL in classes such as real analysis, modern algebra, discrete structures, topology, modern geometry and number theory. We have people inserting IBL modules into calculus and other lower-division classes, and several faculty have flipped their classrooms.

We are an institution that values teaching and learning, and reflective practice fits within the Mission. Our department is, as well, deeply committed to teaching, and our departmental mission.

As a department, we describe our purpose, vision, and mission in the following way:
Our purpose is to foster belonging and participation in our intellectual community, wherein we model the vitality of teaching and learning by addressing the whole person.
Our vision is to sustain a life-long, collaborative community of mathematical scholars, teachers, and learners, connected globally and locally, in order to empower one another as we engage and transform our world.

Our mission is to evoke curiosity about new ways of thinking, and connect to, collaborate with, and challenge one another as we invite students to contribute to our mathematics community. Through inquiry, creativity, and vital, relevant conversation, we instill habits of abstract and applied mathematical thinking and examine the impact of mathematics on our world.

How how long have you been teaching via IBL and how did you get started?
I started teaching IBL in 2006, the first time I taught Real Analysis. I enrolled in a summer institute in Costa Mesa, and learned from Stan Yoshinobu and Ed Parker. I’ve never taught Real Analysis any other way, and in fact, no matter who has taught the class since 2006 has revised and used the notes that I got from Stan. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to a more traditionally-taught class. Since 2006, I’ve taught IBL versions of topology (using Ed’s notes) and modern geometry (using David Clark’s book), and I added sections to Dana Ernst’s Discrete Math notes so that I could adopt it for our Introduction to Proof course. Several of my colleagues have also taught using IBL in other courses, and we have great support in the department for faculty who want to try new pedagogical techniques.

What are some of the benefits of IBL classes to your students?
I taught Discrete Structures in a traditional lecture format for many years, and always felt disappointed at the end. Students really were not as engaged as I wanted them to be, and finally, a little fed up with my inability to really capture their attention, I realized that I was trying to teach them to write proofs and follow logical arguments by showing them how rather than just having them try, fail, regroup, and try again. The answer was actually obvious to me, and I spent the summer of 2016 writing notes and adopting Dana Ernst’s notes for my classes. I’ve been using them ever since. Yes, it’s true that this change means that I “cover” less material in the class, and I don’t get to “cover” equivalence relations any more. What I found was that even if I went over them in class, students didn’t get them enough to use them in future classes anyway. I made a decision to sacrifice coverage for deep understanding and skill, and I believe it was the right choice. My students can write proofs. They can interpret logical arguments. They can find flaws and offer gentle and constructive criticism to peers. They can talk intelligently about the nuances of mathematical communication. And they can do these things well, far better than most students in my class prior to making this pedagogical switch.

In fact, that is true in all of the IBL classes I’ve taught. If I look at the content we cover, it is definitely less in quantity than what I could do in a traditional course. However, the quality of learning is so much higher, and beyond that, students learn to support one another. They learn to take risks and recover from mistakes. They learn to communicate well orally and in writing. They learn to pace their work around everything else that is going on. They learn to listen, to think on their feet, to work in teams. These are invaluable skills.

Tell us about your current grant-funded projects.
I am currently running two NSF-funded projects.

I am the PI of the NSF Noyce Scholars and Interns program at UP. We are finishing up our 5th year, and are heading into an extension year to spend the remainder of our funds. We have been offering scholarships and internships to undergraduate STEM majors and to career-changing STEM professionals who want to become teachers in high-needs schools. It has been interesting to partner with faculty from other disciplines, including biology, engineering, and education, as we attempt to address a national need for highly-trained K-12 STEM teachers. In addition to our original Noyce project, I’ve submitted a proposal as part of the Western Regional Noyce Alliance to fund a series of conferences and meetings for in-service, pre-service, and post-secondary educators involved in Noyce programs.  I am working with several faculty members from a variety of universities in the Western region of the United States.

I am also the PI of the NSF IUSE program at UP, which is a professional development program for UP STEM faculty. We’re in the pilot phase of this program, called REFLECT. The goal of the proposed project, Redesigning Education For Learning through Evidence and Collaborative Teaching (REFLECT), is to increase significantly the use of highly effective, evidence-based STEM teaching methods at the University of Portland using peer observation. The proposal team from science, engineering, mathematics, and education is testing an innovative method of teacher change based on faculty peer observation that leads to reflective teaching. The REFLECT framework is organized to support adopters by providing an alternative form of assessing teaching through peer evaluation and reflection, going beyond student evaluations. The REFLECT project will develop and facilitate training workshops to expose faculty to highly effective evidence-based teaching methods and assist faculty in implementing them. The on-going professional development (PD) will be designed to foster support within a cohort of faculty using evidence-based methods. The workshop and PD will also provide training on faculty peer observation and the process of reflective teaching. Over time, this peer observation and reflection process will provide a support network that helps STEM faculty to continue to implement evidence-based teaching methods in the future, ensuring sustainability of the REFLECT program. The project structure aligns with the incentive system for teaching-focused universities, where teaching performance is highly valued and may not be well characterized in student evaluations. Our first cohort of eleven will participate in a four-day institute this May on evidence-based practices, including IBL. We’ll have a second cohort next summer, and then at the end of the three-year grant, we will host an evidence-based practices symposium for the campus and community.