California State University, Fresno Collaborates with Fresno Unified School District to Support Successful Transitions to College Mathematics

California State University, Fresno, was one of 12 members of the Collation of Urban Serving Universities to receive a Collaborative Opportunity Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. CSU Fresno’s “Transition to Success: Mathematics” project, funded by this grant, aims to increase student success in entry level mathematics by working with Fresno Unified School District to engage K-16 math instructors to collaboratively develop topics and tasks for CSU Fresno’s “Problem Solving Labs.” “Problem Solving Labs” are taken in conjunction with Math 45, a first year college-credit bearing Math course at CSU Fresno. Aligning the content in the labs to Common Core “Performance Tasks” is designed to support the postsecondary success of recent local high school graduates by strengthening the pathway between the math taught in area high schools and college mathematics.

To launch the project, a team of math faculty from Fresno State and Fresno Unified School District brainstormed five topics and identified four minor tasks, for the university’s “Problem Solving Labs.” Math task topics were chosen from Excursions in Modern Mathematics, a text used widely to teach introductory college math courses throughout the United States with a focus on real-world applications of abstract mathematics.

Then the FUSD faculty adapted the content to the Common Core “Performance Tasks” structure that recent high school graduates readily recognize. For Common Core Performance Tasks, scoring rubrics assess student learning and mathematical reasoning, so the team created scoring rubrics for the university problem-solving tasks also.

To date, two problem solving tasks are complete and ready to go. The team will continue developing the remaining problem-solving tasks for the pilot labs in target Math 45 sections to be delivered during the 2017 fall semester.

One potential challenge the faculty identified during this process was that course catalogs identify which course sections have the new (and additional) Problem-Solving Labs, and this might motivate some students to avoid those sections. The university faculty are tackling this challenge by creating a flyer advertising the benefits of enrolling in sections with “Problem-Solving Labs”. The Math faculty will distribute the flyer to all students who have passed the Entry Level Mathematics (ELM) exam and are due to enroll in Math 45. The university math faculty are also directly engaging with and advising students about this.

This project has established strong K-16 partnerships. University faculty learned what the structure of a Common Core “Performance Task” really is, leading to real gains in understanding a high school student’s way of thinking about math. University faculty realized how sequencing their problem-solving labs with FUSD’s performance tasks advances the goal of both institutions, which is to expand content to encourage math reasoning in their students.
“There is power in the varied perspectives and qualities that each of us brings to the table,” said James Ryan, who is coordinating the project for Fresno State. “I was impressed by the level of care, knowledge, and excitement that high school teachers bring into the room. This was an eye opener for me.” The feeling was shared by faculty from FUSD. “It is awesome to be in a room of math people and have these types of conversations,” said Kathryn Mytton, the Manager of Math Curriculum for the Fresno Unified School District. “Our collaboration is building trust and respect.”

While the university will track the outcomes between students in Math 45 sections with and without the new problem-solving labs, the entire team feels that the new problem-solving labs have much more intrinsic value than can be captured just by data. The labs are allowing sustained critical thinking about mathematics by students as they move from high school into university classrooms.

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This post was written in collaboration with Gil Harootunian. Gil Harootunian, PhD, is Director of University Initiatives in the Office of the Provost at California State University, Fresno. Gil works with teams to develop, write, and win grant awards totaling millions and making a real difference for the university’s students.

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