Adding value

Jeff Rice
August 25, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For a long time, said Fran Arbaugh, math education in the United States was about teaching students how to perform calculations with paper and pencil.

“Thirty years ago, we had to spend our time helping kids be able to do that,” Arbaugh said, “and we didn’t have time to help them become mathematical thinkers.”

Though Arbaugh still believes that students need to understand the mathematical structure and underlying concepts of why those calculations work, paper-and-pencil calculations can no longer be the end goal of learning mathematics. Instead, the associate professor of education in Penn State’s College of Education wants to let technology handle the more complicated calculations and help her students — and the students they will teach — use mathematics in creative ways to solve problems, which is reflected in both her classroom and her role as an honors adviser for the Schreyer Honors College.

Arbaugh earned an undergraduate degree from Virginia Tech in family and child development with an option in human services. She worked in a dentist’s office for a year before she decided to go back to school and get certified to teach high school math. A few years later, she enrolled in a master’s program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“It changed my life,” said Arbaugh, who is on sabbatical this semester. “It opened up a whole new perspective on teaching and learning math for me. I started to read the research, started to change things that were in my classroom. My kids started learning better. They understood more.”

She also began working with teachers in professional development. When she completed her master’s, she went on to obtain her doctorate at Indiana University, then spent eight years as an assistant and then associate professor at the University of Missouri before joining Penn State’s faculty in 2009.

In addition to advising roughly 15-20 students per year, Arbaugh also advises Schreyer Scholars — typically one or two per year — on their theses.

“With the honors students, I find I can push them to read the research studies from our top research journals and help them to understand how we do research in math education, and in classrooms,” she said, “and how that can be very different from research they may have heard about.”

One of those Scholars, Leigh Boggs, graduated in May with interdisciplinary honors in educational psychology and secondary education. She will begin her first week of classes as a high school and middle school math teacher in the West Chester Area School District next week and credits Arbaugh with helping to prepare her as both an instructor and an adviser.

“She completely blew my mind about what math actually was,” Boggs said. “I thought I knew math until I took my first class with her. She really challenged me and all of my peers.”

Arbaugh, a past president of the Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (AMTE), helped get Boggs into a local classroom, where she could observe the teacher while she collected data for her thesis. Arbaugh makes it a priority to get her advisees live classroom experience long before they teach their first class.

“People who are studying to be teachers think they know what happens in a classroom because they’ve been in a classroom for 12 years,” Arbaugh said. “They don’t know what goes on behind the scenes in teaching. They see a teacher standing up there and most likely lecturing mathematics, giving tests, grading homework. We’re trying to help them see a different way of teaching mathematics, but also just to start their teacher brains.”

Her classes often require students to give regular lessons in front of the class.

“She made our classroom at Penn State so we were the ones teaching but we were also the ones learning,” Boggs said.

One of Arbaugh’s passions is helping graduate students with their dissertation research, but she said she finds that she can get Scholars into research literature more easily than a typical undergraduate student.

She believes one of the keys to math education is giving students an understanding of concepts before they learn procedure, and that one of the best ways to achieve that is to help more future teachers learn and implement new ways to deliver the material.

“The whole data industry has exploded, and the people who really understand mathematics are the people who are achieving great things,” Arbaugh said. “Philosophically, not only do we want to prepare students better for the workforce but we think that they’ll be better citizens if they understand why math works the way it does. They’ll be better consumers. They’ll be better thinkers.”

Last Updated August 30, 2017