Research News

Program prepares mathematics education researchers for careers

November 10, 2014
by Paul Baker

A mathematics training program at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER) is helping answer the nation’s need for a continuing supply of experts who can provide an empirical basis for curriculum design, assessment, instruction and learning environments, and who can determine the effectiveness of educational programs and policies.

Future mathematics education researchers develop these skills in WCER’s Postdoctoral Training Program in Mathematical Thinking, Learning, and Instruction. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the program at UW-Madison serves postdoctoral fellows by supplementing their graduate training experiences.

For example, postdocs who specialized in curriculum and instruction may seek to learn more about quantitative research methods such as multilevel modeling. Students in psychology and other social scientists can come and learn how to conduct studies in natural settings and collect, analyze, and interpret process-level, qualitative data. The UW–Madison School of Education is rich with experts from a range of research methods and theoretical perspectives that these young scholars can learn and apply in ongoing research projects.

Mitchell Nathan
UW-Madison’s Mitchell Nathan directs the program. He is the director of the Center on Education and Work, and a faculty member with the Departments of Educational PsychologyCurriculum and Instruction, and Psychology.

Nathan says it was designed to reflect the interdisciplinary nature of mathematics education research. That means two-year fellowships are available to students with an earned doctorate in mathematics education, psychology, learning sciences, or a related area. Student research interests have included basic processes in learning and instruction, curriculum development and innovation, efficacy and replication, and measurement.

The program helps fellows identify graduate research methods classes and theory classes to supplement their prior doctoral program training. Fellows produce peer-reviewed journal publications, contribute to annual conference proceedings and programs, and present at professional meetings.

One recent program fellow is Dr. Elise Lockwood, who has since secured a tenure-track position as assistant professor at Oregon State University. She participated in three federally funded projects directed by mentors while advancing her own research on undergraduates’ ways of thinking about combinatorial counting programs.

”My experience in WCER’s postdoctoral program was probably the best thing that ever happened to me professionally," says Lockwood. "Perhaps the biggest way I benefited is through the practical effect it had on my research agenda and my progress toward tenure. By being involved with new projects, forming new collaborations, and also having the time to write up my own research, I now have a huge leg up with my publications and grants as I look ahead to tenure. Thanks to the postdoc, I started my job at Oregon State with a lot of momentum in my research. Being at UW raised the bar in what I wanted to strive for in terms of my research, and that is something that I am sure will continue to pay dividends as my career progresses. I tell everyone who will listen about how great the postdoc was for me.”

Another fellow, Candace Walkington, is now employed at Southern Methodist University. She says the IES postdoctoral program coupled excellent one-on-one mentoring from faculty with thorough training in the most recent statistical and experimental methods.

She writes, “We had the opportunity to develop our own personal research programs and to continually improve our writing skills through publishing articles and writing grants. When going onto the job market, I felt confident in my competitiveness as a job candidate and in my ability to secure tenure once in an academic position.”

Nathan says research sponsored by the training program has already led to the design of new instructional practices that emphasize how teachers can more explicitly communicate the connections among mathematical ideas. To date, four postdoctoral fellows have progressed into more advanced research positions throughout the country. With the award of a new postdoctoral fellowship grant funded through August 2016, Nathan and colleagues will mentor up to four more fellows in cutting-edge research and teaching in mathematics education.

Faculty Mentors 2010-16

Mitchell J. Nathan, director and professor of Educational Psychology (Learning Sciences), with affiliate appointments in Curriculum and Instruction and in Psychology.

Martha W. Alibali, professor of Psychology, with an affiliate appointment in Educational Psychology.

Amy Ellis, associate professor of mathematics education in Curriculum and Instruction.

Charles Kalish, professor of Educational Psychology, with affiliate appointments in Psychology and at the Waisman Center.

David Kaplan, professor of Educational Psychology (Quantitative Methods), with an affiliate appointment in the Department of Population Health Sciences.

Eric Knuth, professor of mathematics education in the department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Peter M. Steiner, an assistant professor in the department of Educational Psychology and is affiliated with the Interdisciplinary Training Program in the Education Sciences, and the Center for Demography and Ecology at UW.

Anita Wager, an assistant professor of mathematics education in the department of Curriculum and Instruction.