Reflections of an Outreach
Jerry F. Dwyer
The mathematics department of the University of home when I finally obtained a post in a mathe-
Tennessee at Knoxville has recognized the bene- matics department.
fits of an outreach program and has made a strong The new position at Tennessee offers much
commitment to outreach activities by hiring two freedom within the job parameters, and the op-
faculty members whose job title is “outreach math- portunity exists to define the role according to
ematician”. The exact nature of this post is still the particular strengths and interests of the in-
being defined by the actions of these new faculty cumbent. This is one of the first such posts in a
members. research mathematics department in the nation,
The new outreach position follows the usual and it offers much potential for innovation.
model for a tenure-track post: typically 40 percent
teaching, 40 percent research, and 20 percent Why Outreach?
service. However, the research expectations are There are many reasons for mathematics depart-
replaced by the requirement that the outreach ments to engage in outreach. The state of mathe-
mathematician develop a funded outreach pro- matics education at the K–12 level is important to
gram, act as liaison with the College of Education, all college mathematics teachers. It is appropriate
offer mentoring to teacher trainees, and publish that faculty from a major university mathematics
in scholarly outreach journals. Outreach for the department be involved. Outreach to the commu-
University of Tennessee mathematics department nity is often the source of fruitful collaboration
is loosely defined as any activity that enhances the between different departments on campus, and
teaching and learning of mathematics outside the outreach activities lead to greater visibility for a
department, in particular in K–12 education and mathematics department. This increased visibility
community colleges. The official description of
can be part of a valuable recruiting strategy, and
the expectations is included in the companion
outreach plays an important role in attracting new
article written by my department head.
students. Finally, participation by mathematics
I was hired in the fall of 2000 for one of the new
departments in K–12 and community projects of-
positions. My colleague Reid Davis was hired at the
fers valuable opportunities for graduate students
same time for the other position. I brought exten-
to gain beneficial teaching experience.
sive experience gained while developing outreach
programs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Challenges
I had worked in several engineering departments
A variety of subtle and interesting challenges have
for many years as an applied mathematician and
appeared in my new job. In many ways these chal-
produced related publications in the mechanics
lenges reflect a clash of cultures. The research math-
literature. However, I maintained a deep interest in
quality mathematics teaching and felt more at ematician often lives in a specialized culture, while
the outreach mathematician must understand and
Jerry F. Dwyer is assistant professor of mathematics at the interact with many different cultures. The following
University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His e-mail paragraphs describe the challenges associated with
address is email@example.com. the education culture, the humanities/liberal arts
NOVEMBER 2001 NOTICES OF THE AMS 1173
culture, the public school culture, the team re- the most frustrating of all is when we make a class-
search grant culture, the local community culture, room presentation and the teacher decides to use
and the campus administrative culture. that time to grade homework rather than partici-
The kind of outreach work that I do is more pate. What message does that send to the stu-
common in colleges of education than in colleges dents? This environment is foreign to me, for the
of arts and sciences. Because relations between schools I attended as a child in Ireland were pri-
mathematics departments and education schools marily places of learning.
have often been strained or almost nonexistent, a A major challenge in outreach work is the need
mathematician feels wary when dealing with math- to obtain funding. We teachers of mathematics like
ematics education. Moreover, a mathematician is to study mathematics and do mathematics research,
hesitant to get involved in traditional mathemat- but most of us do not want to be entrepreneurs and
ics education work if departmental colleagues do administrators: we do not want to spend our time
not value such work and feel that it belongs in the writing grant proposals. Dedicated individuals with
education school. few resources can accomplish significant mathe-
Outreach work is more of a community-based matical research, but outreach is a different story.
and sociological endeavor than is mathematics re- Although one may not need grant money to visit
search. Reflecting this difference, scholarly publi- schools, sit on committees, and write articles and
cations in outreach include much description of reports, often effective outreach work requires large
planning, motivation, outcomes, and reflections on teams of participants. The only way to create these
experiences. Faculty from the humanities and lib- teams is to obtain funding for salary support. More-
eral arts are well versed in this type of writing. But over, there are costs associated with organizing
faculty from mathematics, science, and engineer- events such as teacher workshops and meetings for
ing are a product of a different kind of research cul- parents, and grant money is needed to cover these
ture. We have a different approach to conducting costs.
and reporting our research. For example, a mathe- Another subtle challenge that I faced in devel-
matician might want to publish in a scholarly jour- oping an outreach program was adapting to the
nal a report on educational activities. However, the local community. Mathematical or scientific work
mathematician may lack the background knowledge is usually independent of the surroundings and the
and be unwilling to spend the time on the literature community. All that is required is some solitude
review required for such a publication. and occasionally some equipment. Outreach work
The main focus of our outreach is in K–12 edu- depends essentially on making contacts in the
cation, and I am currently paying special attention local community and beyond. Thus, it takes much
to elementary and middle schools. Achievement of longer to initiate an outreach project than a tra-
American middle school students is low, and there ditional mathematical research project. Although
are many reasons for this. It is not clear how the traditional research is performed at all times of the
problems may be tackled, and the magnitude of the day or week, active outreach is restricted to the
task can be overwhelming. There is a danger of try- school hours.
ing to solve all problems at once, which is not pos- A final point about outreach scholarship is
sible. Many of the issues are political in nature worth noting. Because there is already a body of
and are related to school boards and local cur- literature and a community of practitioners in out-
riculum on one level and to teacher training and reach, college and university administrators may
certification on another level. These are all beyond have preconceived ideas about what an outreach
the power of the mathematics faculty member. mathematician should do. However, my primary
Furthermore, there is often little enthusiasm within responsibility is to the mathematics department.
the schools and districts where there is greatest As my department sees the role of “outreach
need. Some states have education as a low prior- mathematician”, the word “outreach” is only the
ity and then try to make up ground by demanding descriptive adjective. Tension occurs because
high-stakes testing, which is often opposed to the outreach mathematician also needs to satisfy
sound pedagogy. the college as a whole in order to achieve tenure.
A recent report (TIMMS, 1999) suggests that This observation may help other mathematics
American schools are often run as businesses departments in developing outreach positions
which happen to have education as part of their while remaining independent of preconceived
role. My own observation is that education in the outside ideas.
school often takes a back seat to school lunches,
class photos, flu shots, band practice, etc. Classes Activities
are regularly interrupted by public speaker an- In this section I describe some concrete activities that
nouncements. It is often difficult to arrange class I have undertaken as an outreach mathematician.
visits because students are going to the zoo or on One of the most important of these is a series of
some other field trip. Mathematics class seems to classroom presentations that have been described
be a low priority for school administrators. Perhaps as “model” teaching. These presentations include
1174 NOTICES OF THE AMS VOLUME 48, NUMBER 10
game playing and interactive teaching in a manner foundations and corporations that may be able to
that is different from what the students usually en- fund some of our local projects. The optimum use
counter. This style of teaching brings enthusiasm of funds is in the area of personnel costs, as good
and content knowledge to the classroom, which act teachers and visionary facilitators are the keys to
as motivation for the regular teacher. The feedback the success of our projects. For this reason we
from these presentations has been very positive. hope that we can hire some postdoctoral workers
Two important points have to be made here. First, to assist and develop programs. The personal
it is critical that the university mathematician enter beliefs, enthusiasm, and energy of the outreach
the classroom as a collaborator and colleague, not facilitators are crucial to progress in these ventures.
for the purpose of “fixing” the teacher or doing a There is definitely some sense that this work is
research study. Second, we must make sure that personality driven.
we provide assistance without becoming immersed One important role of an outreach mathemati-
in a particular school situation. The outreach math- cian is that of representing the views of mathe-
ematician is a university faculty member with a fac- maticians in the world of mathematics education.
ulty role and must not become a special version Very often education committees lack adequate
of a middle or high school teacher. representation from the world of mathematics.
“Service learning”, a component of some college We cannot complain when decisions are made that
courses, means that students perform community do not reflect our views if we have not bothered
service, which enhances their own learning in the to take an interest in these matters. It is my in-
course (Kraft, 1996). In our lower-level undergrad- tention to represent the mathematics department
uate courses we offer students the opportunity to as- in several such roles.
sist in local K–12 classrooms. This strengthens our
The Way Ahead
relationship with the teachers and also increases
the awareness of outreach among our students. It is I strongly believe in the importance of outreach,
hoped that these activities will give us greater visi- and I will continue to pursue the activities de-
bility in the teaching community and increase our scribed in the previous section. Although for the
own awareness of K–12 issues. All of this should moment this will mostly be at a local level, I hope
give us greater credibility if later we wish to speak that what we do at the University of Tennessee can
offer insights to other colleges and universities as
out on important curricular and pedagogical issues.
they develop their own outreach programs. Re-
Building respect within the department for my
cent articles (Holland, 1999; Keener, 1999) address
role is also important. I have facilitated school vis-
many of the issues facing institutions as they try
its by my faculty colleagues. The average mathe-
to develop criteria for recognizing faculty partic-
matics faculty member is happy to visit schools
ipation in outreach. These challenges are common
occasionally and to reach out with his or her ex-
to many institutions across the nation. Here at the
pertise, but not to make the arrangements or to
University of Tennessee there is senior support for
deal with the logistics. The outreach mathemati-
outreach, and this support has now translated into
cian’s role in facilitating these visits is therefore
the creation of tenure-track outreach mathemati-
very welcome. Gaining respect for my work
cian positions and formal recognition of outreach
throughout the entire campus is equally important,
as a scholarly activity. I look forward to sharing our
and dialogue across college boundaries is also
experience with colleagues around the nation as
greatly enhanced by this new position. Especially other mathematics departments begin to undertake
important is to foster good relations with the similar ventures in outreach.
College of Education, which is a natural ally in
raising the standards of mathematics teaching. References
One of the primary ways to make an impact on  B. A. HOLLAND, Factors and strategies that influence
K–12 mathematics education is to raise the content faculty involvement in public service, J. Public Service
knowledge of teachers. We have already presented Outreach 4 (1999), 37–44.
some seminars and are proposing a series of classes  M. S. KEENER, Strengthening institutional engagement:
and workshops aimed at teachers from first to Addressing faculty issues to facilitate change, J. Pub-
eighth grade. It is important not only that these lic Service Outreach 4 (1999), 29–36.
 R. J. KRAFT, Service learning: An introduction to its
classes contain substantial mathematics content but
theory, practice, and effects, Education and Urban
also that enthusiasm for mathematics is conveyed.
Society 28 (1996), 131–159.
Our philosophy that there is a beauty in the con-  TIMMS, Facing the Consequences: Using TIMSS for a
ceptual understanding of mathematics must be Closer Look at United States Mathematics and Science
passed on. This is one area where mathematics Education, Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1999.
faculty can have a very positive outreach role.
In collaboration with the College of Education
we have submitted a proposal to the National Sci-
ence Foundation for a Center for Teaching and
Learning. We have also begun to identify some
NOVEMBER 2001 NOTICES OF THE AMS 1175