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NSF Grant to Help Balance the Diversity Equation in Math

UMD Researcher Leading National Project to Help Departments Nationwide Become More Open and Equitable

By Emily C. Nunez

six people, three on ladders, write equations on chalkboard

A new NSF-funded program led by a UMD mathematics researcher will train six representatives from math departments around the country to institute diversity, equity and inclusion programs at their own institutions.

Illustration by iStock

A University of Maryland researcher is leading a new pilot project aimed at making mathematics departments a more welcoming space for staff, faculty and students from all backgrounds, supported by a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Scott Wolpert, a professor emeritus of mathematics, will launch the two-year project in spring 2024 to provide diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training to six representatives of mathematics and statistics departments at the collegiate level from around the U.S. Participants will then launch DEI initiatives at their institutions that put what they learned into practice.

At many colleges and universities, including UMD, math is the largest teaching unit by number of classroom hours. A new training program won’t just affect math majors, but many others seeking to meet their degree requirements, Wolpert said.

“What goes on in math and statistics classrooms is particularly consequential to a student’s experience,” he said. “We teach, in a sense, all the different parts of campus.”

The project’s framework comes from Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics (TPSE Math), an organization co-founded by William E. “Brit” Kirwan, a professor emeritus of mathematics at UMD and chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland.

TPSE Math worked with the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s SEA Change initiative to develop a questionnaire that mathematics departments can use to assess their DEI policies and practices. It applies to staff, faculty and students and covers a range of subjects, including mentoring, professional development, representation in the curriculum, support for parents and caregivers, sexual harassment policies and more.

Wolpert, a longtime senior consultant with TPSE Math, said the new project will help participants complete the questionnaire in a systematic way.

“There will be trainings on how to get the information to answer these questions, how to answer questions that are qualitative and how to objectively and accurately provide an overview of your department’s environment,” Wolpert said.

Applications for the training program will be open to math and statistics departments from any university or community college in the United States. In addition, the project will recruit six DEI consultants to help guide the conversation at training sessions, which will be held over two successive summers.

Wolpert has taken part in several DEI-centered projects since joining UMD in 1976, including a movement in the 1990s to introduce group work—now commonplace in academia—into calculus courses. Assignments that foster collaboration and communication among students have been shown to promote DEI, Wolpert said.

During his tenure as associate dean of UMD’s former College of Computer, Mathematical, and Physical Sciences in the early 2000s, Wolpert partnered with the A. James Clark School of Engineering on two NSF-funded projects that aimed to improve the graduation rate of first-generation students in STEM fields.

“Our graduation rate was very close to 100%,” Wolpert said of the success of those projects. “Some of our alumni placed in high-level positions immediately.”

Wolpert said he is excited to join a new project aimed at making math a more positive experience for students.

“The mission of TPSE Math is to effect change in the postsecondary math community and see to it that every student receives math education that is appropriate to their career goals,” Wolpert said. “We hope, through this project, that departments get a more sophisticated understanding of their own atmosphere and initiate a project which has real impact for the student experience.”



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