February 2008

UT Dallas' Goal: Math and Science Performance that Sparkles like GEMS

The performance of high school students on math and science tests is a national disgrace, chronicled in books such as the recently published Rising Above the Gathering Storm, from the National Academies Press. Because math and science education has been integral to UT Dallas’ programs from its founding, we have a special obligation and, frankly, appropriate self-interest in examining where our students stand.

Our look at this critical question arises in part because we are engaged in a reaffirmation assessment with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools or SACS. One requirement of the process is that we must identify an area in which we can directly improve student learning outcomes. SACS calls this process the Quality Enhancement Plan, or QEP. A 16-member group of faculty, staff and students evaluated many suggestions as to how we could best use this opportunity and agreed that helping our students succeed in math and science was vital.

Our own look at this challenge revealed an exodus of students from studies in science, engineering and mathematics to less mathematically intensive degree programs. In a single academic year only 33 percent of UT Dallas freshmen successfully completed Calculus I and II. Chemistry posed a barrier as well: A third of the students failed on their first try. These two courses are gateways to majors that place a heavy emphasis on math and scientific principles—most of our curriculum.

GEMS - Gateways to Exellence in Math & Science

I wish that the problem were solely one of inadequate high-school preparation. But study after study has shown that part of the problem is the way universities teach science, engineering, and mathematics. Its often sink-or-swim, with insufficient tutoring and little one-on-one peer support and engagement. Our goal is student success, so were taking a serious look at how to improve.

The University has produced a comprehensive plan called GEMS—Gateways to Excellence in Math and Science. Over the next five years, the GEMS initiative will overhaul the curricula and teaching methods for these gateway math and science courses. Proposed reforms include:

  • Making sure calculus and chemistry courses align with higher-level courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degree programs.
  • Opening a Math and Science Success Center offering supplemental instruction.
  • Forming a Math and Science Education Council to foster communication among STEM programs and promote innovative ideas for instruction.
  • Developing new courses in mainstream and honors calculus and chemistry to stimulate and prepare students for research opportunities.

To ensure progress on the GEMS effort, the Math and Science Education Council will monitor data on student performance. The data will be analyzed for a better understanding of the entire undergraduate learning experience at UT Dallas. I look forward to reporting to you on how GEMS has brought more sparkle to our students' performance in coming years.

About This Newsletter

The President's Viewpoint is a periodic newsletter distributed to a select group of alumni, friends, faculty and staff. It comes from the desk of Dr. David E. Daniel, President of The University of Texas at Dallas, and provides the ultimate insider’s view on the news and concerns of the university.