Montana State University

Burroughs discusses transcendence of math at provost lecture set Jan. 24

January 13, 2017

Elizabeth Burroughs, head of the MSU Department of Mathematical Sciences, will speak about “Transcendence and Wisdom: Perspectives on Mathematics and the Preparation of Teachers” at the first MSU Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series lecture of the semester, set Jan. 24 at the Museum of the Rockies. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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Most people think teaching mathematics is about numbers, but Elizabeth Burroughs believes that effectively teaching math is more about people and relationships.

Burroughs, who is head of Montana State University’s Department of Mathematical Sciences in the College of Letters and Science, will share perspectives gained during more than 25 years of teaching and tutoring math at the first MSU Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series lecture this semester. “Transcendence and Wisdom: Perspectives on Mathematics and the Preparation of Teachers” is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24, in the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium. Her lecture will be followed by a reception at 8 p.m.

Burroughs will discuss how studies done in Montana and techniques developed at MSU are at the forefront of a nationwide trend to link mathematical ideas to students’ interests and experiences. Burroughs also will explain that her department has learned that helping students who struggle with mathematical concepts is more about building relationships than constructing formulas and equations.

“Attitudes about teachers, teaching and mathematics influence expectations the public has about schooling,” Burroughs said. “From the perspective that mathematics education is a branch of applied mathematics in which teachers are experts, the study of mathematics can prepare students for citizenship and careers, but it can also inspire thoughts of transcendence and wisdom.”

Burroughs’ poetic words describing the teaching of math is understandable for someone who has undergraduate degrees in both English and mathematics. Burroughs explains there are many crossovers in what others might consider dichotomous fields.

“There are some beautiful ways that math shows up in poetry,” she said. “There are lots of ways that math demonstrates beauty.”

A native of Maine, Burroughs always had a facility in math and science, as well as literature. When she attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill she continued in both English and math because the subjects had the most sustained appeal. Her realization about how much she enjoyed her math tutoring jobs formed her future.

“I found it tremendously rewarding,” she said. “I thought then that math teaching could be my career.”

Her first job out of college was as a high school teacher in a district north of Atlanta with students of mixed income levels as well as diverse mathematical comprehension and abilities. It was there that she began to develop working theories about how to teach math, including that most people’s attitudes about math – whether they consider math fun or stressful, easy or agonizing and if they are good at it or not – are often shaped by early schooling experiences.

She decided that “working upstream,” or teaching teachers of math, was a way in which she could help the most number of people.

Her interest in teaching math cemented, Burroughs earned both her master’s and doctorate in mathematics from the University of New Mexico. She taught at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, prior to coming to MSU in 2007.

While at MSU, Burroughs has been a part of a team of mathematicians and educators who use learning theories to help students understand math concepts. Burroughs said that they have found there is value in what is called “productive struggle,” or the idea that mental struggle is what allows students to learn new mathematics.

“Many of us learn new things through steps that include struggle, and often this doesn’t happen just by listening to a lecture,” Burroughs said. However, she added that it is important that the students struggle without becoming mentally exhausted. At MSU, teachers, student success coordinators and tutors build relationships with students so that they are able to support the students with this productive struggle as they break through to understanding.

“Mathematics learning takes place in a complex ecosystem that includes the students and teacher within a classroom environment, supported by tutors and other resources,” Burroughs said. She said the techniques at MSU have moved pass rates of some introductory math courses from a 60 percent to 80 percent.

“We have learned that effective teaching of math is about meeting the student where they are and moving them forward,” she said

Burroughs’ research supports this work. For the past decade she has devoted her research to issues in K-12 mathematics education. She is the governor for teacher education on the Mathematical Association of America’s Board of Governors and has been active in professional societies as a coauthor of recommendations for mathematics teacher preparation. Her current research investigates the nature of mathematical modeling in elementary classrooms in work funded by the National Science Foundation through a collaborative project between George Mason University, Harvey Mudd College and MSU. In 2014, she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of York in the United Kingdom where she studied educational processes.

The Provost's Distinguished Lecturer Series recognizes outstanding MSU faculty for their scholarship and leadership. Three more professors after Burroughs will give lectures this academic year. The next lecture will be Wednesday, Feb. 22, when Joe Shaw, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and OpTeC, will lecture.

Elizabeth Burroughs (406) 994-3604, burroughs@montana.edu