Asee peer logo

When Am I (N)ever Going to Use This? How Engineers Use Algebra (NSF DRL)

Download Paper |

Conference

2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access

Location

Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session

Tagged Topic

NSF Grantees Poster Session

Page Count

5

Permanent URL

https://peer.asee.org/38055

Download Count

23

Request a correction

Paper Authors

biography

Brooke Istas Southern Methodist University

visit author page

Brooke Istas, consultant, adult education mathematics subject matter expert, Cowley College Mathematics Faculty, and a Ph.D. student at Southern Methodist University is recognized nationally for her knowledge of mathematics and mathematical instruction. She has shown herself to be an asset to adult education and the greater mathematics community. She has given several presentations at state, national, and international conferences on enhancing mathematical instruction, understanding higher-level mathematical content, teaching math at a distance, contextualizing mathematics for engagement, and is always willing to share her learning with others. She understands that adult education is enhanced through collaboration with other adult education programs. Brooke is also devoted to understanding adult learners’ perceptions about mathematics to identify the moment that mathematics anxiety is born. Her research focuses on collecting mathematical journeys through qualitative methods. She is also the Subject Matter Expert (SME) for the LINCS (Literacy Information and Communication System), serving at the moderator for both the Math and Numeracy and Science Community of Practice. She is also a reviewer for the Math/Numeracy online resource collection, a part of the Basic Skills Collection of LINCS.

visit author page

biography

Candace Walkington Southern Methodist University

visit author page

Candace Walkington is an Associate Professor in Mathematics Education and Learning Sciences at Southern Methodist University. She studies personalizing math learning to students' career and personal interests.

visit author page

biography

Elizabeth Leyva Texas A&M University San Antonio

visit author page

Dr. Elizabeth Leyva is currently serving as the Director of Entry-Level Mathematics at Texas A&M University San Antonio. Her role focuses on student access and success in freshman level mathematics courses, including the implementation of corequisite and supplemental instruction models to support student learning.

visit author page

biography

Matthew L. Bernacki University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill Orcid 16x16 orcid.org/0000-0003-1279-2829

visit author page

Matthew Bernacki is an Assistant Professor who joined the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education faculty in 2018. He earned his Ph.D. in educational psychology in 2010 from Temple University in Philadelphia and also holds master’s degrees in Experimental Psychology from Saint Joseph’s University and Social Work from Temple University. He worked at the Learning Research & Development Center (University of Pittsburgh) and the Human Computer Interaction Institute (Carnegie Mellon University) as a postdoctoral researcher at LearnLab, and was previously a member of the faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas College of Education.
Matt’s research focuses on (1) the roles motivations and metacognitive processes play when learners use technologies like hypertext, intelligent tutoring systems, and learning management systems, (2) the development of interventions and software to promote effective learning strategies, and motivation to learn and (3) the development of learning materials and environments that personalize learning to students’ interests.

visit author page

Download Paper |

Abstract

Mathematics is an important tool in engineering practice, as mathematical rules govern many designed systems (e.g., Nathan et al., 2013; Nathan et al., 2017). Investigations of structural engineers suggest that mathematical modelling is ubiquitous in their work, but the nature of the tasks they confront is not well-represented in the K-12 classroom (e.g., Gainsburg, 2006). This follows a larger literature base suggesting that school mathematics is often inauthentic and does represent how mathematics is used in practice. At the same time, algebra is a persistent gatekeeper to careers in engineering (e.g., Harackiewicz et al., 2012; Olson & Riordan, 2012).

In the present study, we interviewed 12 engineers, asking them a series of questions about how they use specific kinds of algebraic function (e.g., linear, exponential, quadratic) in their work. The purpose of these interviews was to use the responses to create mathematical scenarios for College Algebra activities that would be personalized to community college students’ career interests. This curriculum would represent how algebra is used in practice by STEM professionals. However, our results were not what we expected. In this paper, we discuss three major themes that arose from qualitative analyses of the interviews.

First, we found that engineers resoundingly endorsed the importance of College Algebra concepts for their day-to-day work, and uniformly stated that math was vital to engineering. However, the second theme was that the engineers struggled to describe how they used functions more complex than linear (i.e., y=mx+b) in their work. Students typically learn about linear functions prior to College Algebra, and in College Algebra explore more complex functions like polynomial, logarithmic, and exponential. Third, we found that engineers rarely use the explicit algebraic form of an algebraic function (e.g., y=3x+5), and instead rely on tables, graphs, informal arithmetic, and computerized computation systems where the equation is invisible. This was surprising, given that the bulk of the College Algebra course involves learning how to use and manipulate these formal expressions, learning skills like factoring, simplifying, solving, and interpreting parameters. We also found that these trends for engineers followed trends we saw in our larger sample where we interviewed professionals from across STEM fields.

This study calls into question the gatekeeping role of formal algebraic courses like College Algebra for STEM careers. If engineers don’t actually use 75% of the content in these courses, why are they required? One reason might be that the courses are simply outdated, or arguments might be made that learning mathematics builds more general modelling and problem-solving skills. However, research from educational psychology on the difficulty of transfer would strongly refute this point – people tend to learn things that are very specific. Another reason to consider is that formal mathematics courses like advanced algebra have emerged as a very convenient mechanism to filter people by race, gender, and socioeconomic background, and to promote the maintenance of the “status quo” inequality in STEM fields. This is a critical issue to investigate for the future of the field of engineering as a whole.

Istas, B., & Walkington, C., & Leyva, E., & Bernacki, M. L. (2021, July), When Am I (N)ever Going to Use This? How Engineers Use Algebra (NSF DRL) Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. https://peer.asee.org/38055

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2021 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015