The proposal is concerned with improving the teaching of mathematics on “user programmes” (i.e. programmes in other subjects such as engineering and economics). The Centre will create networks that bring together university mathematics teachers, teachers from “user programmes” and employers of graduates from “user programmes.” A key goal is that as a result of their work there will be “motivated students who enjoy mathematics and appreciate the relevance of mathematics”.
Strengths and weaknesses
This is a well-written proposal that makes a good case for existing excellence. The proposal made good use of external evidence to support its claims across a variety of subject areas. The quality assurance systems are strong and there appears to be rigorous consideration of feedback received from students. A range of teaching and learning methods are employed. More explanation could have been given about the nature of some of the more innovative forms (for example digital simulations) and there was little evidence of evaluation of these approaches.
The proposers have a good pedigree of integrating mathematics and mathematics education (something which often does not seem to happen) and this close integration of educational research should be an asset to the proposal. However, it appeared that most of the proposed SFU team’s principal research strengths relate to teaching of mathematics in schools rather than in higher education to “user programmes”. A weakness of the proposal (which may be related to the previous point) is that it does not appear to build well on the substantial volume of work internationally that has been carried out previously (particularly in mathematical modelling and engineering mathematics). The networking element of the proposal, alongside the ideas of providing funding to individuals to visit international centres of excellence and “seed money” for small scale projects, provide good opportunities for involving others in the work of the centre.
Site visit: Yes
The declared aim of the Centre is to lead innovation and research in university mathematics teaching and learning within the programmes of other subjects such as engineering, natural sciences, economics and teacher education (socalled user programmes). The intention is to create a national rather than institutional centre of excellence by creating networks of colleagues involved in teaching mathematics within user programmes at institutions across Norway.
Strengths and weaknesses
There is strong support from the senior management of the university for this proposal and a commitment to be involved in the governance of the centre. Furthermore, it became clear at the site visit that there is a committed team of many colleagues, in addition to the nominated Centre leader, who will be involved in the delivery of Centre activities.
In its written submission and more so at the site visit, existing excellence was clearly established. The students who spoke to the NOKUT team during the visit were outstanding advocates for the teaching they receive. They spoke in eloquent terms of the way they are taught and gave concrete examples of how they had been able to use their mathematical knowledge in applications within their “home” discipline.
The stakeholders, representing industry, national bodies and internal user departments, were also very positive about the proposal – both in terms of the need to work in this area and of the proposers’ abilities to deliver the programme successfully.
The centre’s aims are appropriately ambitious and it is clear that considerable thought and planning has gone into developing approaches that should enable the centre to succeed. Fundamental to success will be the creation of networks and special interest groups involving colleagues from institutions around Norway and across Scandinavia. A key strategy in achieving this is to ensure that the centre’s activities in terms of meetings, workshops, conferences, etc will mainly not take place at the University of Agder but in locations around Norway. In addition, to encouraging participation from others at the outset of the centre, this should also be an effective part of the centre’s dissemination strategy. At the site visit, there was a discussion of additional ways of securing engagement of other institutions. These methods include staff from other universities leading some of the work packages (and being paid from SFU funds to do so), making the research “seed corn” funding available nationally and funding colleagues from other institutions to visit international centres of excellence. The proposers indicated that some of this was intended, although it is not explicit in the proposal.
Overall this was a strong, well-presented proposal with appropriate aims built on existing excellence and a clearly structured plan that gives confidence that there is a high likelihood of success.
There were two areas where the NOKUT team felt that the proposal could have been strengthened. The first area relates to involvement with schools. Issues around enjoyment and competence in mathematics do not start in higher education but have their roots earlier. The proposers already have strong links with many schools and teachers in the region. The Centre could build on these and share some of the resources it produces and its approaches with schools, running training events for teachers and “taster” events to enable school students to better engage with mathematics.
The second area relates to the involvement of students. The students the NOKUT team met were not only strong proponents of the quality of the teaching and learning at Agder, they were also enthusiastic to be involved in the activities of the Centre. This could take many forms such as a student user group to “beta test” new resources; students contributing to the development of resources under the guidance of staff; peer mentoring groups; students supporting the production of the proposed journal.
Notwithstanding these two suggestions, this was a very high quality proposal that merits being awarded an SFU.