University of Colorado Denver Professor Wins $1.6 Million National Science Foundation Grant

With the grant, researchers aim to raise STEM enrollment

August 25, 2020

University of Colorado Denver associate professor Heather Johnson, PhD, received a $1,599,774 grant from the National Science Foundation last week. Johnson is an associate professor in CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development where she focuses her work on STEM education. The grant-winning project, Promoting Mathematical Reasoning and Transforming Instruction in College Algebra (ITsCRITiCAL), is a collaboration with Metropolitan State University of Denver, Santa Fe Community College, and Texas State University. 

“We want math classes to be places where students can engage in reasoning, not just find answers,” Johnson said. “We collaborate with faculty across institutions to create spaces where that can happen.” 

This project aims to serve students in the United States by transforming education practices in college-level algebra to promote students’ reasoning. As society sees an increase in the need for STEM professions, it’s important for students to be prepared for the new changes. With this grant, Johnson and her colleagues look to reach three research goals to better STEM education. 

Develop New and Transformative Approaches  

ITsCRITiCAL will develop innovative digital tasks, known as Techtivities, that will investigate mathematical reasoning, rather than answer-finding. Researchers also hope to embed developed tasks into existing courses which will connect them to high-leverage content. For instructors, ITsCRITiCAL will provide support and extend opportunities for them to promote student reasoning and ensure they can examine which student voices are being heard.  

Create Communities of Transformation  

Innovative tasks are only one part of transformation. How instructors implement those tasks impacts students’ opportunities to learn. 

To promote lasting change, ITsCRITiCAL will create Communities of Transformation to ensure that evidence-based practices continue across its institution partners. These collaborative spaces foster faculty interaction to promote innovative practices. Instructors across institutions can connect via video conference and social media to network, support, and sustain innovations. 

Draw Connections  

Lastly, ITsCRITiCAL will draw connections between instructional practices, instructor beliefs, and students’ covariational reasoning, math attitudes, and course success. Covariational reasoning involves forming and interpreting relationships between changing quantities, such as distance and height. It is a competency important for students’ success in key areas of college mathematics (e.g., functions, rates, and graphs) as well as for critical thinking as an educated citizen.  

ITsCRITiCAL will include graduate research assistants in all aspects of the project to contribute to the societal need of developing STEM researchers.  

All ITsCRITiCAL institution partners serve large populations of students of color and first-generation graduate students. This project creates enrollment in STEM programs cross institutions of high education and disciplinary communities.   

Building on Earlier Success 

ITsCRITiCAL builds from Johnson’s 2017 National Science Foundation funded project, Implementing Techtivities to Promote Students’ Covariational Reasoning in College Algebra (ITSCoRe). ITSCoRe’s findings revealed that students’ interaction with the Techtivities could promote their mathematical reasoning and foster their positive attitudes toward mathematics. 

“Math isn’t just for everyone. Math belongs to everyone,” said Johnson. With this grant, Johnson and her team want to create a lasting partnership that transforms instructional practices in introductory college math courses.