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March 4, 2021

President’s Distinguished Teaching Award

Teena Gerhardt

Teena Gerhardt

Department of Mathematics
College of Natural Science
President’s Distinguished Teaching Award

Teena Gerhardt demonstrates a tremendous commitment to the education of all students. Gerhardt spearheaded two major Gateway reforms within the mathematics department over the past four years. Gateway courses, historically referred to as prerequisites, are entry-level courses that generally apply to the requirements of a degree program; ideally, they welcome students into a field where they learn the foundational skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their careers. In practice, however, Gateway courses have often slowed student progress or taken a lasting toll, particularly on underrepresented college students, who are disproportionately held back by them, leading to lower STEM enrollment and even decreased graduation rates. New approaches to teaching Gateway classes in mathematics have led not only to greater success for all students but radically improved overall understanding of the mathematics material being taught, ensuring greater student success in higher level classes requiring these skills.

From 2015 to 2017, Gerhardt co-directed the revision of “Applied Calculus,” transforming it from a traditional lecture course into a lab-based class that focused students on applications of calculus in their major area of study. The first step was to split the course into a life science stream and an economics stream. Through extensive collaboration with biology faculty, the life science stream was tailored toward life science-related goals, with weekly, 50-minute labs that present exploratory assignments integrating calculus techniques into a domain-specific application. Life science students studied pharmacokinetics and drug delivery as proxies for discontinuous functions and one-sided limits. Models of Rotavirus outbreaks illuminated derivative rules, interpreted the meaning of derivative values and illustrated limiting behavior. 

The economics stream explored calculus applications through the lens of the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis. The derivative was introduced though studies of the mass of bighorn sheep or through an analysis of marginal cost. Both oxygen consumption by birds and growth of social networking memberships were intertwined with integration. 

The revitalization of “Applied Calculus” has been transformational. Success rates for students in the revised curriculum have risen to 85 percent compared to a national benchmark of 75 percent. With the exam materials comparable before and after this reform, this improvement has not come at the expense of subject mastery; it is only the performance and overall understanding of the mathematics material that improved. Connecting the mathematical abstractions to concrete applications makes the abstractions more accessible and more memorable for many students, reflected in the student comment, “I usually struggle with math, but something about this class clicked for me. I enjoyed going to class.” 

Beginning in fall 2017, Gerhardt led the reform of “Intermediate Algebra,” which focused generally on the properties of real numbers; factoring, roots and radicals; first- and second-degree equations; linear inequalities; polynomials; and systems of equations into the “College Algebra I and II” sequence that shifted class focus from a remedial college algebra lecture course toward preparation for calculus.

To continue to broaden the impact of her efforts successfully, Gerhardt has engaged in the two-year STEM teaching fellow program through MSU’s Association of American Universities STEM education initiative project, which involves working with faculty from across the university to improve Gateway STEM education. Taking this class further demonstrates Gerhardt’s broad dedication to collaborative efforts to improve STEM education as a whole. 

An outstanding educator and driving force for the nationally recognized improvements to MSU’s Gateway curriculum for STEM education in mathematics, Gerhardt’s efforts will impact far beyond MSU; indeed, her stature as a nationally recognized researcher in topology leverages her Gateway Education reform. 

For her unparalleled contributions to Gateway Education at MSU and her unwavering commitment to diverse student success, Gerhardt is richly deserving of the President’s Distinguished Teaching Award. 

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By: Beth Brauer

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