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Impromptu: Justine Chasmar

Director of Goucher’s Quantitative Reasoning Center

Dr. Justine Chasmar arrived at Goucher this year to take the helm of the newly created Quantitative Reasoning (QR) Center, devoted to promoting math and critical thinking. The center supports Goucher’s new curriculum, which adds a “data analytics” requirement, to prepare students to navigate a data-rich future. For Chasmar, who received her bachelor’s and master’s in mathematical sciences and her Ph.D. in engineering and science education at Clemson, it’s another step on a path that began when she was young.

Tell me about yourself. Where are you from?

I am originally from Florida, but I moved to South Carolina and went to Clemson University as an undergrad. I really loved it. Go Tigers! I don’t think you can go to Clemson without being a real fan and bleeding orange, it’s completely a requirement. My parents are from New Jersey, so I’m not really quite southern, but it was really fun being raised in the southeast. The weather’s gorgeous. The mountains are beautiful. I’ve always been very academic focused.

Have you always been focused on math?

I’d say math has always been a passion of mine. I remember my mom got me this workbook at a yard sale when I was really young. It was a math workbook. I worked through this book all summer. Neither of my parents went to college, but I really loved learning and I loved math, and so I took the opportunities along the way, taking Advanced Placement and things like that, and decided to major in math in college, thinking I would do the math route, the traditional math path and become a math professor. I wanted that foundation and I knew I would need that material in other classes and have to apply it in real life. My real life began as a mathematician.

One of the reasons behind the Quantitative Reasoning Center is to try to avoid some of the stigma of math, right?

I would say definitely. I think growing up, and now looking back I realize more it’s very common to hear people say, “I’m not a math person.” Even walking down these halls, and on this campus, there’s a real reason for this center and for my position. There’s a lot of math anxiety, math fear, low math self-confidence on campus, and that’s pretty pervasive throughout our country and in higher education. I was very lucky that my upbringing, my parents, the schools I went to, and probably my friends were very supportive and I was able to nurture that excitement. I think a lot of math fear comes from either a person you identify with saying something to you about how math is hard or they don’t like it, or they don’t identify with math, or some kind of setback where you don’t have the support system you need to overcome that and you don’t learn the tools you need to persevere. Yes, I’ve seen a lot of that. I was very lucky—I’m a female mathematician and my parents didn’t go to college, but I was always well-supported in that path.

I’m assuming that the math you were doing was maybe stuff that your parents hadn’t done. Where did you find that support?

I had a couple of really influential professors in high school and as an undergrad. I did several summer and school research experiences. I did a research experience for undergraduates —RU— at Clemson with a couple of professors who were very wonderful and supportive, and I was able to reach out to while I was in school. I chose to do several capstone type of senior projects along the way during my undergraduate, but I would say the big transition in my career and in my love of math, and how my love of math changed and got me here was in undergrad I- early on I knew I loved helping others and teaching as well as math, and so I took several positions that merged those two interests. I worked as a tutor and as a supplemental instruction leader. Really, I noticed during undergrad, all of my positions had to do with math and education, so moving forward I felt, “So how do I continue to pursue this and what would that look like long term in a career?”

What do you see as the mission of the Quantitative Reasoning Center?

I think the center popped out of, one, kind of this math anxiety on campus in higher ed; and, two, this change in curriculum that we’ve had. We moved away from a core quantitative reasoning requirement to a data analytics requirement. Luckily there’s a lot of overlap and we use math and quantitative skills across the curriculum. I think primarily we want to support quantitative skill development and help students be able to apply that across their whole curriculum and in their disciplines.Of course, the center will help with freshman- and sophomore-level classes, but I think as the word grows and the culture on campus shifts and students realize that the QR Center is available, then some upper-level students will begin to come and realize, “I’m in a class that uses a heavy amount of graphing, and I wasn’t expecting it and I haven’t had graphing in several years, but it’s really important and this is something I need to know in my field.” In the future we will be having workshops for math note-taking, math problem-solving, things that are quantitative-specific and focused. We have a great space as well as great partners in the Writing Center; we’ll be collaborating on some workshops and things for students on math or STEM-specific writing as well. You see that kind of interdisciplinary approach and quantitative skills reach across all fields.

I’m trying to figure out how to put this. Is it in a sense broadening what we think of as math and getting people to see the underlying mathematics in these many other things that may seem more relevant than a calculus problem on the blackboard?

Definitely. Not to say calculus isn’t important or relevant because it is and that shows up later down the curriculum and the QR center supports calculus techniques as well. Really, quantitative reasoning in and of itself, if you think of kind of a three part venn diagram, it’s where quantitative skills, critical thinking and problem solving, and then context or disciplinary pieces come together. QR is that middle part. The QR center really has to support almost all three pieces in order to exist, but a lot of what we do is back in that quantitative skills bubble, in order to feed back into that middle space where the three collide.

It is interesting, just to go back to what you said earlier, that you do hear that all the time, “Oh, I’m just not good at math.” You rarely hear someone say, “Oh, I’m terrible at history.”

It’s so true. It’s such a pervasive thing. I’m very careful with language. I’ve even had conversations with faculty who have said something where they joke about the math team. It’s funny. We all hear these jokes joking about mathematicians or math in general. I’m like, that’s part of the issue right? I think it’s okay that math is its own beast, but with every field, it’s about having the support available, really persevering, and realizing failing is part of the process and part of learning.

The QR center can help with a lot of those things and I’m slowly going into classrooms and doing introductions, meeting with faculty and having quantitative skills and reasoning be just part of the normal way at Goucher, part of the normal education, and everyone does it. Using language like, “Everyone’s a math person.” You do math when you pay your bills. You do math when you figure out how much gas mileage you’ve got for your car and realizing that math is less scary when it’s in context and it’s around us all the time. I would love to see in five or so years, a really big transition on campus with language that we use about math and quantitative reasoning.

I know we’re just barely into the first semester, but have you had students coming in for help or …

Yes. We definitely have and I’m really excited. I’d love more. Outreach is very important. Word spreads, but even on a small campus it’s slow. Tutoring is drop-in from 10:30 to 5, Monday through Thursday. Very accessible, and we’re looking into kind of shifting a little later as I learn needs on campus.

I speak at classes and I have my tutors do that as well. We’re creating flyers and all these things that need to go up and starting outreach on campus. Now that I’m here, I can go to things like   family weekend, and all the Goucher days and weekends where incoming students or interested students can meet me and my tutors and people that are involved in the QR center. I think that will normalize the fact that there’s support on campus. It’s a normal part of learning. I would say all students should just build support systems, like the QR center, into their schedule and just know, “Oh, I go to this tutor on Thursdays and that’s when I do my work and look, I have help there when I need it.”

Let’s shift gears a little. Tell me about your research. What do you do?

I would not say I actually do math research. I do STEM education research and I work in several different areas right now and I’m honing in on a couple that are Goucher specific because I want to give back to this community and I think that’s very important. My main interest is how do students study? How do they regulate their studying? That’s termed self-regulated learning in the literature. I’m really interested in how students build a professional identity. I identify as a mathematician. How’d that happen? When did that happen? Who supported me in that? What were the key moments that lead me there? I’ve worked a lot with engineers in the past, which is a whole other thing. Every profession has an identity, so how do we support students and feeling like they belong in their profession?

I have an interest in how students view their future and their career goals, and how that impacts what they do in the present and while they’re here in school. The theory is called future time perspective in the literature. It’s very fun. Luckily I have colleagues who have worked in math self-efficacy, which is basically your ability and confidence to do math, and I’m really interested to see where that math anxiety comes from.

I think you have to start at the roots of problems to see why and where and when things happen before you can actually start to help things on campus. We know tutoring and support systems help. There’s lots of research that’s been done on that, so I know the QR center is valuable and it will meet a lot of needs, but I’m also interested to know when these students start having these math anxieties, what were all the ways that they experienced things that caused that. I think once I learn that I’ll be able to better support students at Goucher and on campus.

It’s a problem that starts at a pretty young age, right?

Very early.

So is it possible to sort of yank them back on to the path?

I would say it definitely is and research shows that. It’s really learning how to best yank them, right? How do we best grab them and get them back on the, “Oh no, I can do math. I’m not afraid of math.” They don’t have to be a mathematician to use math and quantitative skills in their lives and feel comfortable doing that, and most of them will, and do. I think it’s really valuable to figure out where that happens, when that happens and figure out how we can best get them on that path and feel less fear.

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