From struggling math student to nationally recognized teacher

The College of Science is proud to announce Mary Beisiegel, an assistant professor of mathematics and an OSU alumna (’96), has received the 2017 Henry L. Alder Award for Distinguished Teaching by a Beginning College or University Mathematics Faculty Member from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). The award recognizes her excellence in teaching mathematics which is shown to have influence beyond her own classroom.

“I am so proud of Mary being honored with this impressive teaching award,” said Sastry G. Pantula, dean of the College of Science. “She is pioneering new and effective ways of teaching mathematics in the department and beyond.”

“She is making a tremendous impact on our students and helping us reach our student success goals. We are very fortunate to have Mary on our faculty to help all students succeed in mathematics and to develop the computational skills necessary for the 21st century,” he added.

Beisiegel has become the second professor in the department to win a national honor for teaching achievements this year. Professor Tevian Dray received the 2017 Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished Teaching of Mathematics from MAA in January and was named the 2016 Outstanding Educator in Mathematics by the Oregon Academy of Science. Excellence and creativity in mathematics teaching, as exemplified by Beisiegel and Dray, are critically important as failure rates in college mathematics classes climb, prompting many universities to overhaul math classes and the way they are taught.

The Alder Award recognizes Beisiegel’s contributions that characterize her as a “superb teacher of mathematics” who “seamlessly blends small group work, short lectures, large group discussions, Socratic lectures and student work at the board to convey as much mathematics as she can to as many students as possible.”

Her students and colleagues speak about Beisiegel’s teaching in glowing terms. One of them describes her teaching as “nothing short of spectacular.”

A highly gifted teacher, Beisiegel has “an intense, self-reflective and an ongoing critical stance toward her teaching,” her colleagues attest. She is continually on a quest to learn more about the teaching of mathematics and, consequently, revise, rethink and improve her own teaching methods.

“It is not unusual for me to toss my lecture notes from the year before and start from scratch,” says Beisiegel. “I learn something new about teaching from my students every day.”

Beisiegel has a deep sense of empathy and understanding of her students’ abilities and a high level of respect for the mathematical knowledge they bring to the classroom. She often poses questions that don’t have easy answers to in order to train her students to reason and think through the steps of a problem. More importantly, she trains them to think like mathematicians.

Beisiegel describes the first day of class for a calculus course. Her students had a rousing discussion of all the mathematics they already knew—linear equations, functions, how to graph, different symbols and representations.

“My goal is to draw students into the mathematics by pulling out the knowledge they bring with them. Also, that conveys to them they are mathematical and that they have the knowledge to engage with what they will be learning,” said Beisiegel.

Paying for college comes at a high cost

However, Beisiegel’s own path to her career as a professor of mathematics was anything but straightforward, and her story may inspire many a student who has struggled with mathematics and thinks the subject beyond their reach.

She arrived at Portland State University as a freshman, intending to major in psychology. After failing a calculus class in her freshman year, Beisiegel dropped out of college and worked at a series of “crummy jobs” for a few years. When she decided to return to college, warm memories of her excellent math teachers in high school motivated her to pursue the subject.

“What stood out was how much they really seemed to like math and how much they cared for students.” Pushing aside her earlier unfortunate brush with math, Beisiegal decided to major in mathematics, enrolling in a community college for a year before transferring to Oregon State.

At OSU, a taxing work schedule helped her pay for her education but left her little time to study. She ended up with Cs in her math courses.

In her senior year, Beisiegel applied to be a participant in an NSF-sponsored weekend conference for female undergraduate science students interested in graduate school. She was blown away by the stories presented by women scientists who had pursued graduate education and became hell bent on joining their ranks.

Now that she had something to work towards, Beisiegel dropped her sundry jobs, applied for and received a Pell grant and began to immerse herself in an undergraduate research project and her mathematics coursework. The results were dramatic and immediate.

“When I quit [working], got grants and studied math all the time, I got straight As.”

She arrived at Virginia Tech wanting to be an applied mathematician. But after teaching her very first class as a graduate student, Beisiegel knew she was hooked and wanted to teach mathematics for the rest of her life.

She holds masters degrees from Virginia Tech and University of Alberta, Canada. Besiegel received her Ph.D. in mathematics education at the University of Alberta. She was an assistant professor of mathematics at Western Oregon University before coming to OSU in 2012.

Making her mark on students across the nation

Not only does Beisiegel stand out as a highly effective educator in the classroom, but also as a leader in the field of mathematics education. A highly accomplished scholar whose research focuses on how people prepare for careers in post-secondary mathematics teaching, Beisiegel often incorporates her research and evidence-based pedagogical models into teaching. Beisiegel is an expert in the use and dissemination of the Mathematical Quality of Instruction (MQI) instrument, which is designed to provide scores for teachers on important dimensions of classroom mathematics instruction. She uses its measure of “mathematical richness” to guide her own teaching methods and make the subject as clear and accessible as possible to math and non-math majors alike.

“Through the lens [of MQI] teachers are looking for linkages between explanations, representations, generalizations, mathematical language and procedures. Working with that instrument makes me think a lot more in depth about clarity in my teaching of mathematics,” explains Beisiegel.

Her research has contributed immeasurably to mathematics teacher training and development at all levels within OSU’s Mathematics Department. She currently leads the graduate teaching assistantship training program, using her knowledge of mathematics education literature to help graduate students become ace teachers of mathematics.

Beisiegel is an affiliated faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a Research Fellow (2010-2012) at Harvard she assisted in a national study of elementary mathematics teaching with 300 teachers, and explored methods to improve teachers’ mathematical quality of instruction.

In 2016, she was awarded a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to work on curriculum renewal in lower division mathematics courses. Collaborating with colleagues in the Departments of Chemistry and Integrative Biology, Beisiegel will craft interdisciplinary partnerships to improve connections between science and mathematics and aid course design in mathematics.

Thanks to the grant, OSU joins a consortium of 11 institutions and MAA who will work collaboratively to revise and improve undergraduate mathematics curriculum. Collectively, they will impact more than 52,000 students and 200 faculty by changing mathematics curricula in ways that improve learning while building the next generation of the STEM workforce.

A recent report by the Mathematical Association of America says 50 percent of students obtain a grade below C in College Algebra courses. The report further states that failure in “mathematics courses are the most significant barrier to degree completion in STEM and non-STEM courses.”

Mathematical skill and ability empower students in profound ways, making it possible for them to pursue a wide variety of jobs in industry and research, gain economic mobility and make vital contributions to our world (See MAA report, entitled A Common Vision for Undergraduate Mathematical Sciences Program in 2025). 

Mathematical and STEM literacy are seen as key to success in the workforce in a hyper-technological world, not to mention that it is also crucial to the health of the nation’s economy, industry and its global competitiveness. A widely shared 2005 National Academies report, entitled “Rising above the Gathering Storm,” urges an ambitious overhauling of math and science education to create a scientifically literate and skilled 21st century workforce.

Beisiegel looks forward to continuing her efforts to enhance student learning, ability and confidence to master mathematics.

“The award is a wonderful opportunity for me to gather all my thoughts about teaching, continue to tie my teaching to the research literature and implement active learning techniques so that students can have a positive experience with math.”

Beisiegel is her department’s expert on mathematics teacher training at all levels and her transformative ideas and energy are opening up pathways for student success and achievement in mathematics at OSU and beyond.

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