Southwestern College, SDSU Awarded $2.2M Math Equity and Research Grant by National Science Foundation

Math students inside the Southwestern College Math Center.
Math students inside the Southwestern College Math Center.

Southwestern College and San Diego State University have been awarded a joint $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to close equity gaps in math classes, train math faculty to foster student success and develop research on how to better prepare students to enter STEM majors.

Bohdan Rhodehamel, assistant professor of mathematics and the grant’s principal investigator, said that math courses have become one of the biggest gatekeepers for students to successfully enter a STEM field. 

One of the ideas the grant will support is to supplement traditional lecture-based math teaching environments with inquiry-based learning, which gives students opportunities to engage in mathematical reasoning and problem-solving with their peers, much like mathematicians do as they collaborate and critique one another’s emerging work. 

“When students are engaging in reasoning and sharing their ideas with each other, their learning is more powerful,” Rhodehamel said. “They’re discovering these methods on their own or building the foundation to better understand them. They start to own the content as opposed to teachers just telling them how to do it. This is how human beings learn, we have to begin to make sense of things on our own and then experts can come in and help organize and refine the ideas.”

The grant was co-developed with partners in the math department at San Diego State University. Faculty from Southwestern College will work together with faculty and graduate students from SDSU to conduct the research on Southwestern College’s campuses.

The grant serves as a response to Assembly Bill 705, which gives students access to enter transfer-level math and English courses when they begin at a California community college. The grant helps math faculty better serve students in an environment where they are placing directly into STEM gateway math courses. Before Ab 705, many students placed one to three levels below their first transfer-level mathematics course.

The grant will work with 20 adjunct and full-time faculty to have professional development workshops to prepare their classrooms for inquiry-based learning and serving Southwestern College’s unique population. Both San Diego State and Southwestern College are federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institutions. 

“As educators, we know that equity gaps exist, but it’s hard to turn that around on a local level and ask yourself ‘how is that affecting me and my classroom?’” Rhodehamel said. “Now what do we do to remedy this problem? How are we going to change things in our classroom to close these gaps and better serve our students? What does this mean for my own instructional practices?”

The grant will develop in phases, with phase one looking at Southwestern College’s current math courses and instruction and then developing the professional development workshops based on that research. Southwestern College faculty will have an integral role in development. 

One of the goals is to institutionalize the professional development to train future math faculty, even after the grant expires, to continue to better serve Southwestern College students, close equity gaps in math courses and increase the number of students successfully entering STEM-related majors.