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Brian Bergen | Mary Sandoval | Project NExT
by Salley Shannon

Reprinted with permission from the editor of The Lamp, published by Exxon Corp.

There's a revolution going on in mathematics, and it isn't about a new theorem or even whether kids should use calculators. It's about something more fundamental: how do you teach math so that students understand it?

The revolution's shock troops are a cadre of brand-new math Ph.D.'s who are part of Project NExT, an acronym for "New Experiences in Teaching."

The program attracts people already determined to spread the gospel of reforming math education. It's aimed at helping them build a routine of professional disciplines so they can continue to improve their knowledge and teaching skills throughout their careers. About 70 math Ph.D.'s in their first or second years of college teaching are chosen to become NExT fellows for one year.

First, NExT introduces these young teachers to each other, mixes in a few master-teacher mentors and adds some "try this" workshops on teaching methods. It also makes sure they get to national conferences and have access to e-mail.

"Then, basically, we get out of their way while they teach each other," says Dr. T. Christine Stevens, chairman of the math and computer science department at St. Louis University and a co-originator of NExT.

The program grew out of a series of conversations between Stevens and the late Dr. James R.C. Leitzel, a former math faculty member at the University of New Hampshire.

"We were motivated by a sense that going to graduate school in math doesn't necessarily prepare you for the classroom," recalls Stevens. "We also saw a need to build community among younger mathematicians."

Good news soon followed. In 1994 the Mathematical Association of America agreed to sponsor the program. Also, the Exxon Education Foundation provided funding at the rate of $200,000 a year for three years. It recently renewed this funding for another three years.

"What's truly exciting about NExT," says Bob Witte, Exxon Education Foundation senior program office, "is that it gets us away from the old 'anyone can teach' idea. It brings us to the truth: learning to be a good teacher takes time and effort that is every bit as challenging as doing complex mathematical research."