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Westfield State mathematics professors receive $279,993 grant from National Science Foundation

Westfield State mathematics professors receive $279,993 grant from National Science Foundation

WESTFIELD, Mass., March 30, 2016- Westfield State University mathematics professors Christine von Renesse, Volker Ecke, Julian Fleron, and Phil Hotchkiss have received a $279,993 five-year grant funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grant supports the department’s Discovering the Art of Mathematics (DAoM) initiative, which provides a range of resources for teaching mathematics in an inquiry-based way at the college level.

The grant is called PRODUCT – Collaborative Research:  Professional Development and Uptake through Collaborative Teams. It is a collaborative project in which California Polytechnic State University is the lead.

“The demand for Professional Development workshops on inquiry-based learning (IBL) has far surpassed our ability to meet the demand,” Professor Christine von Renesse, coordinator of the Westfield State University PRODUCT team, said. “At a national level, our colleagues have also seen this.  PRODUCT is our response, a way to significantly increase the number of educators who can offer Professional Development in IBL thereby greatly expanding the number of teachers and practitioners who can use it meaningfully in their mathematics classrooms.”

“Studies have shown that students in science and math fields learn more and fail courses less frequently when their instructors use methods other than lecturing,” said von Renesse. “This ‘active or inquiry-based learning’ approach, which includes techniques such as group problem solving and student presentations, is recognized as a major factor in student success in STEM. The new grant will allow us to build on our Discovering the Art of Mathematics work to provide mathematics faculty who want to include more active learning strategies with materials, teacher strategies, and assessment techniques.”

In 2012, Westfield State received a $550,600 NSF grant, the largest NSF grant in the university’s history, for “Discovering the Art of Mathematics (DAoM): Inquiry-Based Learning in Mathematics for Liberal Arts.” This grant, which built on a 2009 NSF grant of $149,000, supported the development of a library of 11 semester-long, stand-alone text books, student and teacher resource guides, and assessment tools for Mathematics for Liberal Arts (MLA) courses.  The books can be downloaded for free by visiting

The rationale behind DAoM is to demonstrate that while mathematics is practical, it can also be approached creatively and artistically serving as a bridge between mathematics and the arts and humanities.

The project received national recognition when The Atlantic published an article in October 2014 which prominently featured DAoM. The article describes how mathematician and Cornell professor Steven Strogatz used DAoM materials and IBL pedagogy in his college course and saw the immediate impact this new approach to teaching had on his students.

“They [the students] were having a true mathematical moment,” Strogatz said in the article. “That is, they were deeply engaged with a puzzle that made sense to them, and they were enjoying the struggle. They were feeling what anyone who loves math feels, the pleasure of thinking, the pleasure of wrestling with a problem that fascinates.”

Strogatz, who has received numerous teaching awards throughout his career, also said, in one of DAoM’s monthly blogs, “Teaching this class was a joyful experience surpassing any other in my career.”

“Discovering the Art of Mathematics has led many national inquiry-based learning workshops over the last four years.” said von Renesse.  “Because of the new PRODUCT grant, we will continue these efforts until 2020, firmly establishing Westfield State as one of the national leaders in inquiry-based teaching and learning in mathematics.”

Regionally DAoM also supports several K-12 school districts in implementing inquiry-based techniques into their mathematics classes. Additionally, DAoM promotes inquiry through a visiting faculty program at Westfield State where faculty and teachers can observe classes and engage in conversations about teaching and learning.

There is also increasing international interest in DAoM. Professors Volker Ecke and Christine von Renesse will facilitate a workshop at International Congress on Mathematical Education 2016 in Germany.

The numbers bear out DAoM’s success. DAoM has published 12 peer-reviewed papers about inquiry based teaching and learning in mathematics in the last five years and given 19 presentations at national conferences. The project website is the main hub for faculty to access resources and find support for inquiry based teaching and learning. From August 2014-August 2015, there were 20,000 users and 18,000 book downloads. There are currently 900 faculty on the DAoM monthly email list and nearly 200 faculty signed up for an account for teaching materials. Over the grant period, the number of sessions, users, and book downloads have increased by an impressive 200% to 400% each year.

Von Renesse said DAoM has also informed the way the Westfield State University Department of Mathematics educates future teachers.

“The discussion of inquiry-based learning in our department has influenced how we teach other courses for the mathematics major and for future teachers,” von Renesse said. “We have re-focused our First Year Seminar, Math 116, and use Discovering the Art of Mathematics materials to introduce math majors to the culture of doing mathematics. We are currently piloting a course Math 355 for future middle and high school teachers in which the students learn how to teach a class in an inquiry-based way.”

For the original audience, math for liberal arts students, 80 sections of MA110, Mathematical Explorations, have been taught using DAoM materials and pedagogy since the beginning of the first NSF grant.  This represents more than 2,000 students from various majors. Data analysis has shown that a majority of these students now have fundamentally different attitudes about mathematics because of their experiences in this course.

One Westfield State student wrote, “I went in to this class saying, ‘I’m not good at math’ and I left this class saying, “‘I can do math.’”

Another student reported, “This class is not easy by any means but I like that it does inspire curiosity by encouraging me to think on my own and explore math. For once I feel like I am actually utilizing my curiosity and the ideas I develop about math.”

Praise for the program

In an Atlantic article, Steven Strogatz described how he learned about the IBL approach described above from a DAoM workshop, an experience he describes as “powerful.”

“This experience gave me powerful insight into what it must be like for students in an IBL classroom,” Strogatz said. “It made me realize the importance of providing a safe and nurturing space for the math explorers I was about to start working with in just a few days."

For more information on the NSF grant, please contact Christine von Renesse at or visit the program’s website at