Sharon Ross Receives 1997-1998 Outstanding Faculty Service Award

Sharon Ross, Mathematics
A passion for her work and a creative nature have propelled Sharon Ross, Mathematics, into exceptional service to the University and community—a service recognized by her selection for the 1997-98 Outstanding Faculty Service Award. Ross answered three calls during this interview, which gave a glimpse into the broad scope of her daily service: one call was from a Liberal Studies major asking what tests she needed to take in order to add math to her credential; another was a request to address the Math Club; and the third was from a Redding school administrator asking about distributing royalties to teachers from a curriculum project in which Ross was involved.

In the past several years, Ross has been instrumental in creating two interdisciplinary master's programs in mathematics education (one for elementary and one for secondary teachers) and is given credit for recruiting, almost single-handedly, twenty master's candidates to the program.

Her connection to Northern California k-12 mathematics educators and administrators through her work with the state curriculum mathematics project, the Mount Lassen Mathematics Council, Mathematics Field Day, and as a field tester/consultant to the Investigations Mathematics Curriculum and Seeing and Thinking Mathematically projects has put her into a close teaching, consulting, and mentoring relationship with mathematics teachers and student teachers.

Ross's service on several department committees, including curriculum, Strategic Plan, hiring and personnel, the Unit Incentive Funds, and mathematics education, have gone far beyond duty and expectations according to Mathematics Chair Jim Jones. "The department's two master's programs would not exist were it not for the extended effort of Sharon to bring them into being," wrote Jones in his letter of recommendation for the award.

Jones also described Ross's enormous contribution as co-chair on the Strategic Plan Committee: "She encouraged all involved to treat the process not as a burden but an opportunity. It is impossible to overestimate the value of this service to the department."

From the time she was seventeen, Ross wanted to be a teacher. She attributes her entry into college and the field of mathematics to a high school teacher, who changed both her and her parent's minds about going to college and pursuing what she loved. "I loved math and I wanted to teach. Even now, the teaching part and working with future teachers is my greatest love."

As she taught mathematics, first in a high school and then as an instructor at the University, she became more and more interested in problems of math education. She asked, "Where do problems start? What is it that makes it so difficult for some students to learn?" It became her working theory that anxiety and negativity were far more relevant predictors of success and failure than genetics.

Ross also suggests that there is something in the American culture's attitude toward math that separates us from other countries with fewer mathematics performance problems. Some of these attitudes include the myths that, "Only a few people are good at math, and the rest of us are not, and, that there is no shame in being poor in math; in fact it is to be expected, especially in females."

Ross teaches teachers to approach any mathematical task as a problem with many different ways of reaching a solution. The task of the math teacher is to allow students the room to solve—to encourage discovery and creative process. She helps shift the cultural bias against mistakes to acceptance of mistakes as part of the solving process.

Ross encourages teachers to use collaborative working groups so that students can talk about a problem and learn from each other. They evaluate various approaches and see more "efficient or elegant ways of solving the problem." Although it may seem somewhat paradoxical, Ross believes that group work contributes to another goal of good mathematics instruction: to give students more confidence in themselves when they encounter a task. Students don't have to rely on someone else or an answer book to know whether or not something is right. Ross calls this "sense-making," where the student isn't simply focused on a formula or answer, but on the problem-solving process involved.

Sharon Ross's numerous publications such as her recent "Place value: problem-solving and written assessment using digit-correspondence tasks" under review for FOCUS on Learning Problems in Mathematics, her service on panels and boards, her presentations at professional conferences, her refereeing for prestigious mathematics education journals, attest to her standing in the professional community.

It is, however, her overall commitment to mathematics education, said Jones, that will enable CSU, Chico to become the source for excellent teachers/leaders. The University, wrote Jones, "... can already take pride in mathematics teachers who are changing the face of mathematics education throughout the state's elementary and secondary schools. Thanks to Ross's efforts, our impact in the future will be even greater."


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