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Presidential Semester Incentive Award boosts math immersion with hopes of future NSF grant

Math immersion
Dr. Robb Sinn and Dr. Karen Briggs, both professors of mathematics at UNG, are teaching a "math immersion" of four classes this fall to help ease students' transition to proofs-based mathematics.

Dr. Robb Sinn has seen it too many times.

Students spend years in mathematics classes focused on problem-solving, then must switch to proofs-based mathematics their final two years of college. It's a "bait-and-switch" that leaves many struggling and some changing majors.

So Sinn, a professor of mathematics at the University of North Georgia (UNG), worked with Dr. Karen Briggs, also a professor of mathematics at UNG, to develop the idea for a "math immersion" similar to what's done when students study abroad to learn a language and culture, only for a much different subject. He believes taking four of these classes during the same semester will help students see how they are connected.

He and Briggs applied for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for the idea in 2010 and 2011. Despite positive feedback, they came up just short both times.

"It's just a little too unique, a little too edgy and new," Sinn said.

But this fall, Sinn and Briggs will try out their math immersion and document the results for a new NSF application, thanks to a Presidential Semester Incentive Award from UNG President Dr. Bonita Jacobs. She gives the awards annually to encourage development and innovation.

Each professor will teach two of the four classes offered in the immersion: introduction to mathematical proof, introduction to linear algebra, probability and statistics, and introduction to abstract algebra I. Both will take notes on the courses the other is teaching as research for their next NSF application.

Sinn said he's pretty sure the program is unique in the United States, noting this isn't being tried at Harvard, Stanford or MIT — or anywhere else.

"We're a little powerhouse here," Sinn said.

Briggs is looking forward to it.

"When courses are presented disjointedly, it's not always clear to a student how different subjects relate," Briggs said. "With the immersion, students will have the opportunity to not only make the connections between courses but see how some of the more theoretical material can actually be applied to problem-solving."

Briggs added the math immersion will allow students to lean on each other for support.

"I think the most helpful thing about the immersion will be having a cohort of students who will be taking all of the same classes at the same time and will be able to discuss their experiences together," Briggs said. "I think that the camaraderie among the students will alleviate the notion of feeling alone in the learning process."

Sinn expressed gratitude to Jacobs and Dr. Andy Novobilski, associate provost for research and engagement and chief research officer at UNG, for their support of the project and allowing him and Briggs to split the award, as well.

The mathematics department also is being supportive by refurnishing and re-equipping a classroom in the Newton Oakes Center on the Dahlonega Campus for a configuration conducive to collaborative group work or test-taking.

Sinn said mathematics department head Dr. Dianna Spence has been a strong advocate for the immersion. Spence and Sinn were part of a successful NSF grant for a stats project in 2007, and she received a phase 2 NSF grant in 2011.

Spence said Sinn is tenacious with his projects.

"If he gets an idea and he knows it's good, he won't abandon it," Spence said.

Spence said the math immersion "has a lot of promise" and a chance to become a model for mathematics departments across the country. Briggs also feels the project could make all the difference with the NSF.

"Although we received many positive comments and support from some external experts in proof conception and construction, we did not receive the grant (in 2010 and 2011) because some of the reviewers questioned the feasibility of such a program," Briggs said. "If we can show that a math immersion is not only feasible but also beneficial for students, we can make our next application stronger."

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