Pathways to Math Literacy

Dave Sobecki and Brian Mercer


Dave Sobecki
Miami University

I was born and raised in Cleveland, and started college at Bowling Green State University in 1984 majoring in creative writing. Eleven years later, I walked across the graduation stage to receive a PhD in math, a strange journey indeed. After two years at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, I came home to Ohio, accepting a tenure-track job at the Hamilton campus of Miami University. I’ve won a number of teaching awards in my career, and while maintaining an active teaching schedule, I now spend an inordinate amount of time writing textbooks and course materials. I’ve written or co-authored either seven or twelve textbooks, depending on how you count them, as well as several solutions manuals and interactive CD-ROMS.

After many years as developmental math coordinator at Miami Hamilton, I share the frustration that goes along with low pass rates in the developmental math curriculum. Far too many students end up on the classic Jetson’s-style treadmill, with the abstract nature of the traditional algebra curriculum keeping them from reaching their goals. Like so many instructors across the country, I believe the time is right to move beyond the one-size-fits-all curriculum that treats students the same whether they hope to be an engineer or a pastry chef. “Because we’ve always done it that way” is NOT a good reason to maintain the status quo in our curriculum. Let’s work together to devise alternate pathways that help students to learn more and learn better while hastening their trip into credit-bearing math courses. Since my book (Math in Our World) is written for the Liberal Arts Math and Quantitative Literacy market, I think I’m in the right place at the right time to make a difference in the new and exciting pathways course.

I’m in a very happy place right now: my love of teaching meshes perfectly with my childhood dream of writing. (Don’t tell my publisher this – they think I spend 20 hours a day working on textbooks – but I’m working on my first novel in the limited spare time that I have.) I’m also a former coordinator of Ohio Project NExT, as I believe very strongly in helping young college instructors focus on high-quality teaching as a primary career goal. I live in Fairfield, Ohio with my lovely wife Cat and fuzzy dogs Macleod and Tessa. When not teaching or writing, my passions include Ohio State football, Cleveland Indians baseball, heavy metal music, travel, golf, and home improvement.

Brian Mercer
Parkland Community College

I can say without a doubt that I was made to be in a classroom. I followed the footsteps of my father, a 35-year middle school math teaching veteran, into this challenging yet rewarding career. My college experience began as a community college student at Lakeland College in Mattoon, Illinois. From there, I received a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Eastern Illinois University and a Master of Science in Mathematics from Southern Illinois University. I accepted a tenure-track faculty position at Parkland College, where I have taught developmental and college-level courses for 15 years. I had the opportunity to begin writing textbooks shortly after I started teaching at Parkland. My then department chair and mentor, James W. Hall, and I co-authored several textbooks in Beginning and Intermediate Algebra.

In the fall of 2011, our department began discussing the idea of creating two tracks through our beginning and intermediate algebra courses. The idea stemmed from two issues. First, most of our beginning and intermediate algebra students were headed to either our Liberal Arts Math or our Introduction to Statistics course. Second, we wanted to beef up intermediate algebra to better prepare those students who were headed to college algebra. These were two competing ideas! Increasing the algebraic rigor of these courses seemed to “punish” students who were not heading to college algebra. With the two track system, we implemented a solution that best serves both groups of students.

I have to admit that I was initially concerned that offering an alternate path through developmental mathematics for students not planning to take college algebra would lead to a lowering of standards. However, my participation in our committee investigating this idea led me to believe it was possible to offer a rigorous course that was exceedingly more appropriate for this group of students. Since there were no materials for the course, I began creating my own and was paired by McGraw Hill with Dave Sobecki. Together, we have created the material that I have been using for class testing. After a semester and a half of piloting these materials and seeing the level of enthusiasm and engagement in the mathematical conversations of my students, I am now convinced that this is an ideal course to refine and offer. As a trusted colleague told me, “this is just a long overdue idea.”

Outside of the classroom and away from the computer, I am kept educated, entertained and ever-busy my wonderful wife, Nikki, and our two children, Charlotte, 6 and Jake, 5. I am an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan and enjoy playing recreational softball and golf in the summertime with colleagues and friends.

“Why do I need to know this?” This question is the bane of the math teacher’s existence. Of course, we know that the benefits of mathematical education go far beyond using specific procedures: It’s about exercising the brain, learning problem-solving skills, and understanding the importance of being numerate in our society. But what if we considered that question in a deeper way: what do non-STEM students really need? And what if we agreed to move past the “this is important because it’s important” mentality, and thought about the topics and activities that will best serve a group of students that are, for the most part, poorly served by traditional developmental algebra?

Our project is the result of attempting to do just that. It’s not about watering down the curriculum in an attempt to pass more students. It’s about providing non-STEM students with an alternate pathway that will get them into the college-credit math courses they need without getting trapped behind the roadblocks that the traditional developmental math track has become. Most importantly, it’s about focusing on context and critical thinking, and showing these students why the math they’ve struggled with for so many years is relevant in their lives.

What we’ve discovered along the way is how much richer the experience can be for non-STEM students when they stop trying to memorize and mimic, and start to really think and learn. By using a workbook format, focusing on active learning, incorporating technology, and approaching every single topic from an applied standpoint, we’ve been able to build a course (and a book) that elicits our favorite response from students: “This doesn’t feel like a math course. We’re kind of using math…” YES. Yes we are.

If you look very carefully, you’ll find many of the topics that typically make up the core of the developmental algebra curriculum. We like to think of it as giving your children medicine they don’t want by mixing it into a bowl of ice cream. By making everything contextual, and liberally mixing in important study skills and a variety of topics that are usually in the province of liberal arts math, we’re making the process of learning useful problem-solving skills through algebra more palatable for students, which at the end of the day is a significant part of the battle. When your students open their minds to the possibility of really understanding a math course, and really seeing how math can be useful, they blossom into the learner that we try to bring out in all of our students.

In some cases, students may be inspired to change their path, moving into a STEM-related field. If so, that’s great! Taking the pathways course in no way precludes that. In fact, the emphasis on conceptual understanding will hopefully make students more likely to succeed in a further algebra course than force-feeding them the same algebra that they choked on in previous courses, either at the high school or college level.

We hope that you find our vision useful, contemporary, and maybe even inspiring. We’d love to hear what your vision is, and how we can improve our materials to make Pathways the book that can turn that vision into reality. Please contact us!

Dave Sobecki —
Brian Mercer —