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NSF awards math professor its CAREER grant

June 21, 2004

Photo of Eric HsuEric Hsu, assistant professor of mathematics, has been awarded the prestigious CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The award recognizes and supports the early career development activities of teachers and scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. The NSF specifically looks for projects that promote or support career development while effectively integrating research and education.

Hsu, the author of several math teaching resources and instructor of SFSU graduate students who are teaching mathematics, will apply his award of $489,000 to studying "how teachers learn to teach and learn to improve their teaching." He would like to discover efficient ways for "teachers of teachers" to communicate regularly enough with colleagues so they can learn from one another about the effectiveness of their teaching methods. The development of an online teacher community will also take into account the socialization that occurs between teachers and students.

Already the designer of several online teacher sites, Hsu has been studying online communities since his postdoctoral work at the University of Texas, Austin. He believes that the Internet is a tool that has not yet reached its potential among the community of higher education math teachers. "Teachers have their own professional culture," he says, "and it doesn't disappear when they go online." Hsu is concerned about the mismatch between the actual culture of teachers and the structures arranged for them by online supervisors or designers. "We need to find ways online networks can fit the best parts of teacher culture."

Hsu plans to construct a set of tools, including software that will work on standard formats, which can produce statistics on patterns of conversations and the structure of discussion threads among instructors and their students who are learning to become teachers. After analyzing what he collects, Hsu would like to identify the structural features of both online and live communities of practice and make it possible to align the cultures of math instruction in both settings.

Hsu's pilot design experiments will involve a group consisting of SFSU graduate students who teach algebra in schools with high minority populations. Ultimately, Hsu hopes that his students' involvement in his study will not only improve their effectiveness as teachers but in turn, help their students to succeed in courses like algebra, which have a reputation for keeping minorities out of college.

"Life doesn't end with graduation," Hsu says. "Teachers working in schools and those studying to become teachers need to find ways to connect as a community." The community Hsu imagines can not only instill professional support among classmates, it can facilitate communication and establish mentorship between practicing teachers and those who follow in their footsteps.

Sheldon Axler, dean of the College of Science and Engineering, notes that Hsu's research will have widespread applications. "Eric Hsu already plays a key role in the effort to make SFSU a national leader in mathematics and science education," he says, "but the CAREER award reflects his potential to make further major contributions to mathematics education in general as well as to our students who will become teachers."

The CAREER grant project is a natural extension of another NSF-funded project involving Hsu. He is one of three principal investigators involved in the REAL (Revitalizing Algebra) Partnership, a project designed to find ways to help high school students "over the algebra hump." REAL brings together three teaching communities: undergraduates interested in teaching, graduate algebra instructors at SFSU and K-12 algebra teachers in several Bay Area school districts.

-- Denize Springer


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