Center for Mathematics and Science Education Aims to Raise the Bar in Math and Science Achievement

March 2010 By

OXFORD, Miss. - American 15-year-olds lag behind their peers in 31 countries in math proficiency, and in science, the nation's eighth-graders' test scores trail those of eight countries, a 2009 U.S. Department of Education report concluded.

"Even worse, that standing is falling," said John O'Haver, a University of Mississippi chemical engineering professor and director of the UM Center for Mathematics and Science Education.

And just as America has fallen behind much of the developed world in math and science achievement, Mississippi ranks dead last nationally in these areas. The state's universities have produced only 20 bachelor's degrees in math education over the last two years and only a handful of doctoral degrees over the past four decades.

To address the problem, CMSE is a using six-year grant from the Hearin Foundation to provide doctoral candidates a $20,000 annual stipend, nearly double the amount of any other stipend on campus. The goal is to improve both math and science education across the Magnolia State and help build a better pipeline for a more technical workforce.

"Our society is becoming more and more technologically advanced," said Julie James, former North Pontotoc High School math teacher. "As teachers, we are preparing students for jobs that don't even exist yet. Problem-solving and logical thinking skills will be in high demand."

James is one of nine doctoral students on scholarship through the CMSE program. The New Albany native, who was a public school teacher for five years, believes a doctoral degree will allow her to better train future teachers.

"I have children of my own in public school," James said. "My goal is to help Mississippi teachers learn how they can tap into our students' potential."

Eighth-graders in Chinese Taipei, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan all rank above their American peers in mathematics, and eighth-graders in Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Korea, England, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and the Russian Federation also outscore American students in science.

"If we cease to be competitive in education, then we will cease to be competitive as a nation," O'Haver said.

But he is optimistic because CMSE students genuinely seem to care about the state of education.

"Our students have a passion," he said. "They want to make a difference."

For UM physics graduate Carl Dewitt, pursuing his doctoral degree would be impossible without the center's support.

"The CMSE has been tremendously helpful in the continuation of my education," said the 28-year-old Amory native. "They are providing me with the resources and experiences needed to be a better professional. I am truly grateful."

Raising math and science achievement standards can have far-reaching benefits, Dewitt said. For example, physics research, which incorporates mathematics and science, has produced great achievements, ranging from new cancer therapies to ways of monitoring nuclear nonproliferation.

"Current middle and high school students will be the designers and producers of the greatest devices the world has ever seen," Dewitt said. "If America cannot raise its standings, then one day we will be working for India and China."

Established in 2006 under the auspices of the UM School of Engineering, CMSE works to improve mathematics and science education in Mississippi through a comprehensive program of outreach, training, teacher certification and scholarships. For more information about CMSE, visit cmse.olemiss.edu.