UNO mathematics hires 10 new faculty for first-year courses

Former NebraskaMATH participants Jeff Depue, Kenzi Medeiros, and Greg Sand are three of the eight instructors on the team, who began working together in June 2021.
Former NebraskaMATH participants Jeff Depue, Kenzi Medeiros, and Greg Sand are three of the eight instructors on the team, who began working together in June 2021.

An overhaul of the first-year mathematics courses at the University of Nebraska at Omaha is underway this fall.

With the recent hires of 10 new faculty, including two tenure-track and eight instructors, the Department of Mathematics at UNO aims to bring about a change in its teaching philosophy and, ultimately, improve general education mathematics.

Associate Professor of Mathematics Nicole Infante, director of this newly formed Quantitative Reasoning team, oversees efforts to implement active learning environments instead of traditional lectures, into UNO’s first-year courses. In 2021, she joined Assistant Professor Karina Uhing, who was hired in 2020 and had earned her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Hiring eight new instructors is fairly unprecedented, across all universities,” said Infante, who came to UNO from West Virginia University, grew up in Omaha, and is an alumna of UNO. “There has been an incredible amount of support from our senior vice chancellor and the mathematics department for this effort. It’s clear they wanted to do things differently and make changes.”

Former NebraskaMATH participants Jeff Depue, Kenzi Medeiros, and Greg Sand are three of the eight instructors on the team, who began working together in June 2021.

Depue, hired in 2020, finished his school year at Gretna High School as the math department chair before joining UNO full time in the summer of 2021. Depue completed NebraskaMATH’s Nebraska Algebra and New Teacher Network, earning his master’s degree in 2010, and went on to teach evening courses for UNL’s Department of Mathematics. Depue hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in mathematics education once he settles in at UNO.

“Initially, I wanted to find a way to eventually help with teaching future math teachers, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave teaching mathematics altogether. This position seemed to fit my interests and aspirations perfectly at the right time,” said Depue, who is teaching Intermediate Algebra and Intro to Computational and Mathematical Thinking this fall.

Infante said Depue is focusing on the technology side, figuring out the best way to set up Canvas and the online homework system, Edfinity, and how those technologies can best work together.

Medeiros brings a middle-school perspective to the team. A graduate of Math in the Middle in 2015, Medeiros taught at Lewis and Clark Middle School in Omaha Public Schools before taking the 2020-21 school year off to stay home with her four children. She is teaching four sections of College Algebra and working with the research team.

“The research team is exploring the impact of a group of collaborating math teachers on the larger department within the college and how the group can best integrate into the department,” said Medeiros, who also plans to pursue a doctorate in mathematics. “A team of instructors within the UNO math department is also being assembled to discuss the book Mathematics for Human Flourishing by Francis Su. With this new career, I hope to help students continue in their STEM path and not have College Algebra as the deciding factor as to whether they succeed in their dream.”

Sand, who earned his doctorate in education in 2018 from UNL, was a NebraskaNOYCE Master Teaching Fellow and a longtime mathematics teacher at Omaha Central High School.

“My choice to apply happened after a long conversation with Associate Professor and search committee chair Michael Matthews about the changes they were making to this part of the math department,” said Sand, who is teaching Intermediate Algebra and College Algebra. “The shift was from a structure where the graduate students taught the course in a traditional lecture style to one with an active learning style lead by an instructional team that involved dedicated teaching faculty, graduate teaching assistants, and undergraduate learning assistants. Being part of a new team making changes at a university was exciting to me and presented a new career challenge.”

Sand and Larissa Schroeder, formerly of the University of Hartford, are both in lecturer positions and are co-leads in charge of designing and delivering professional development for all of the graduate teaching assistants and undergraduate learning assistants.

The rest of the team includes Keith Gallagher, who was a postdoc at Simon Fraser University and previously had Infante as his Ph.D. advisor at West Virginia University; Leslie McFee of Millard North High School in Omaha; Melissa Riley, who was teaching Business Algebra at UNO; and Linda Rau of Westside High School in Omaha.

All of them are involved in the creation of the course content, Infante said. “It’s a good mix of people, each bringing different experiences, good conversations, and well-informed perspectives.”

The overhaul process began in 2017, when UNO’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness was concerned with DFW rates in the first-year math classes, said Matthews. After working with UNL’s Nathan Wakefield, director of first-year programs in mathematics, and taking his advice on what had worked well in Pre-Calculus courses, Matthews also researched what other universities had done to help. Matthews and other interested faculty met with the upper administration at UNO and proposed that the university hire two or three new faculty who have expertise in this area.

After the hiring of Uhing, Depue, and Infante, the senior vice chancellor supported the decision to hire seven additional, experienced instructors. Each section of each first-year course also has a graduate teaching assistant and a learning assistant working with the instructor.

“This is a strong team, right in the prime of their careers,” said Matthews, who reached out to teachers who were former undergraduate students of his, such as Medeiros, about this opportunity.

While the effort this year is focused on College Algebra, Intermediate Algebra, and Intro to Computational and Mathematical Thinking, Infante said they will be updating all of the first-year courses. She said the classrooms for these courses also have been outfitted with free-standing whiteboards around the room, and the courses are moving to standards-based (also known as mastery-based) grading approaches. The students are given several opportunities to demonstrate understanding of approximately 22 learning outcomes throughout the semester instead of traditional, high-stakes mid-term exams.

“I am excited to implement active learning with a large population of students at UNO,” said Sand, who went to a conference in July about how to improve teaching assistant training. “Existing research supports this shift and I believe in the effect it can have on student learning and understanding of mathematics. With approximately two out of three jobs in the modern economy relating to STEM fields, success with this venture would be helping a large number of students access these important and well-paying careers.”

Sand said that many of the projects that he has already worked on have been improved by his work with UNL, from introducing students to the legendary Dr. Robert Moses and discussion how mathematical literacy is a civil right to developing questioning strategies for teaching.

“Honestly, not a day goes by in this job that I don’t make use of something that I have learned, taught, or developed during my work with NebraskaMATH and the Noyce MTF,” Sand said.

Depue agreed that NebraskaMATH has been beneficial in his growth and development as a math teacher: “Not only has the experience improved the quality of my instruction, but also it has given me a network of colleagues around the state. I feel that I could go to many high schools around the state and know a math teacher there.”

- Lindsay Augustyn, UNL CSMCE