Campus: CSU, Long Beach -- September 26, 2000

Cal State Long Beach Math Professor Spending 2000-2001 Working for National Science Foundation

Robert A. MenaA math professor from California State University, Long Beach is spending the 2000-2001 academic year in Arlington, Virginia, having accepted a one-year appointment as a program director for the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Educational System Reform (ESR).

In his new position, Robert A. Mena, a faculty member at Cal State Long Beach since 1988, will help create and manage large-scale programs designed to strengthen the math education infrastructure of states, urban centers and rural areas.

"What the division does is give big grants to big school districts, which have at least 20,000 students," Mena said. "What these school districts do is apply for a grant that can really change the system--curriculum changes, requirements of teachers, teacher credentialing--and the NSF helps them decide what is needed to make their respective systems more effective."

Focusing on math, science and technology education, the ESR Division reports that systemic reform of education has been recognized as a necessary strategy to provide improvements in the nation's educational enterprise. Mena will assist their efforts in math.

"I think the reason they hired me is because they needed someone who teaches teachers. We do a lot of that at Cal State Long Beach, and I think we do well," Mena explained. "They also wanted somebody who wanted to influence the teaching of math."

When discussing changes or reforms in education, math can be an especially controversial area, especially in California. The "California Math Wars," as Mena calls it, has one side extolling the virtues of whole math and the other side stressing the importance of math skills.

"One side says don't teach any skills, and the other side says teach only skills, and never the two shall meet," Mena pointed out. "I see both sides of each argument, so I'm somewhere in the middle. I see a good side to this and a good side to that. I am convinced, though, that everyone needs to have a comfort level with math, and that is exactly what memorization gives you."

On Sept. 18, Mena began his one-year appointment, which could be extended up to four years. Mena, however, is convinced he will be back after this year because he says he is going to miss teaching so much. Still, he wants to make the most of his appointment with the NSF and is hoping to have an impact in the ESR Division's efforts.

"Anyone who knows me knows that I am philosophically based in the sense that I teach my teachers how to think deeper than just curriculum," Mena said. "You need to know why you are teaching something. And, the fact is, once you have the why, then you can answer the whats.

"This is what I am hoping to share as part of this NSF process," he concluded. "I'm hoping to grow as an educator, to learn from other people's opinions, and to have an effect on the group's view of mathematics education in the United States."

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