Wednesday, January 24, 2018
  Announcements, Alumni

By Marci Caltabiano-Ponce

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and 11 other universities have announced they will be part of a special initiative known as SEMINAL: Student Engagement in Mathematics through an Institutional Network for Active Learning.

Participation in SEMINAL supports the work of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) to scale the adoption of active learning for undergraduate pre-calculus and calculus instruction.

The project, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a $3 million, five-year grant, will emphasize helping underrepresented minority students succeed in introductory math courses – the most common roadblock to a degree – and are foundational in STEM fields.

Active learning is a hands-on approach to instruction that replaces the older, more static classroom lecture format to engage students and ensure meaningful interaction with teachers and course materials.

Over the past year, APLU has worked with San Diego State University, University of Colorado Boulder, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which have championed the use of active learning in introductory mathematics with great success. With those three institutions as partners, APLU now will support and study the efforts of nine universities across the country. The process will help to identify which methods for implementing active learning for mathematics work best at different types of schools, with the ultimate goal of developing models that can work at virtually any institution.

The nine new universities, including UTRGV, will join the three core institutions to form a diverse cohort studying how to enact and support institutional change fostering the use of active learning in mathematics.

UTRGV and the other universities joining the effort were selected from a pool of 47 institutions that submitted proposals and will serve as models for a national push to reform introductory math instruction.

Dr. Virgil Pierce, associate professor of mathematics and UTRGV associate dean for Student Success, Sciences, said the initiative is an important one for UTRGV students.

“We have increasingly large numbers of students joining STEM fields, and mathematics is the heart and soul of those related fields,” he said “The promise of incorporating active learning into our instructional approach is exciting. We look forward to increasing our ability to help our students succeed in the STEM fields, and we are grateful to APLU for the opportunity to join these important institutions in this initiative.”

In addition to UTRGV, the other institutions joining the effort are California State University, East Bay; California State University, Fullerton; Kennesaw State University; Loyola University; Morgan State University; The Ohio State University; University of Maryland; and University of Oklahoma. 

Howard Gobstein, APLU’s executive vice president and one of the principal investigators on the NSF-backed initiative, said far too many students hoping for a career in a STEM field get tripped up by introductory math courses, “right off the starting block.”

“With a persistent shortage of skilled workers in STEM fields and unequal access to all students, we have a tremendous opportunity to broaden participation and address the biggest hurdle for STEM students’ success,” he said. “A growing body of evidence shows that active learning is highly effective at helping students succeed where traditional instructional methods would have failed them.”

UTRGV and the other eight new institutions were selected through a rigorous peer review process that examined the merit of proposals, as well as institutional characteristics including type, size, location and attributes of the student body.

SEMINAL was initiated through, and continues to align with, the APLU Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership (MTEP) – building on earlier funding from the Helmsley Charitable Trust. APLU also works to increase underrepresented minority participation in the STEM fields through its APLU INCLUDES effort, which aims to diversify STEM faculty.

Introductory math courses are foundational to success in STEM majors and fields, and active learning has proven highly effective in helping more students succeed in such courses. The largest study of undergraduate STEM education literature to date – a meta-analysis of 225 studies published by the National Academies in 2014 – found that undergraduate students in classes using active learning methods had higher course grades by half a letter grade, and students in classes with traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail.


APLU is a research, policy, and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening and advancing the work of public universities in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.  With a membership of 237 public research universities, land-grant institutions, state university systems, and affiliated organizations, APLU's agenda is built on the three pillars of increasing degree completion and academic success, advancing scientific research, and expanding engagement.   Annually, member campuses enroll 4.9 million undergraduates and 1.3 million graduate students, award 1.2 million degrees, employ 1.2 million faculty and staff, and conduct $43.9 billion in university-based research.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.