Grades 2-12 in Houston ISD public schools, including Bellaire HS
B.A. in Mathematics / Mathematical Sciences from Rice University
M.S. in Statistics from the University of Texas at Austin
Also did all UT coursework for a statistics PhD and have credit for Society of Actuaries‘ Exams 100,110,120 (i.e., Course 1, plus 35 prof. dev. units)
Ph.D. in Mathematics Education from the University of Texas at Austin
My research program is situated in mathematics education with roughly 3/4 of it having a specialized focus on statistics education, an area still rapidly growing in size and importance with the ever-increasing need for all citizens to gain statistical literacy, reasoning and thinking in our information age. Because mathematics and statistics have been shown to be frequently associated with anxiety, difficulty, and disinterest among secondary and postsecondary students, and because of the extra responsibility of making sure that the pre-service and in-service teachers we teach will not replicate negative attitudes, the driving interest behind my research has been to develop and assess ways to make mathematics/statistics more intuitive, engaging, and meaningful to students. Over my career, my scholarship has clustered into foci of engagement, teacher knowledge, intuition, and curriculum, and equity.
Since 2006, one of my biggest collaborative research programs has been an exploration of how English language learners encounter in learning introductory statistics. Our initial case study of pre-service teachers was reported in the November 2009 Statistics Education Research Journal (a top-tier journal with a 10% acceptance rate) and has yielded much followup research (see https://larrylesser.com/?page_id=2047).
My scholarship on engagement in mathematics/statistics classrooms includes not only conceptual papers on specific modalities (e.g., mathematics/statistics and song), but also big picture overviews, empirical survey research on instructor motivations and hesitations, NSF-funded randomized experiments, and a qualitative case study on classroom usage. See https://larrylesser.com/?page_id=2045
I’ve long been intrigued by what students find intuitive and counterintuitive. My dissertation articulated a framework for the selection and role of counterintuitive introductory statistics scenarios that motivate and engage the intuition and serve as rich vehicles for multiple representations/perspectives. In subsequent empirical survey research (published in Teaching Statistics and in Induzioni), I found that college students starting an introductory statistics course showed high positive correlation between interest in and surprise with respect to true statistical statements in lay language. This result suggests that counterintuitive scenarios may motivate more than they demoralize, and these ideas led to my involvement in an NSF CCLI grant in engineering education and a JSE paper that won the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award given at the 2012 International Sun Conference on Teaching and Learning. I have also explored the intuitiveness of particular scenarios/topics such as one-way ANOVA, disjunctive event probability (e.g., how many people it takes to have at least a 50% chance of at least 2 people in the room being born on the same day of the year), weighted averages (e.g., the ambiguity of finding ‘average class size’), and Simpson’s Paradox (i.e., a comparison can be reversed upon aggregation; my 2001 NCTM Yearbook chapter on its multiple representations has been one of the most downloaded articles of the hundreds on the world’s premier statistics literacy website).
Another major research project (we published in Journal of Mathematics Education Leadership) used mixed methods and item analysis to explore connections between student knowledge and teacher knowledge with a group of middle school teachers in a TEA-funded professional development project. Other papers explored other aspects of middle school teacher background, including TPACK, and conceptual understanding of properties of the median. I’m also on a team that developed and applied the first instrument to measure statistics teaching efficacy (see http://www.memphis.edu/sets/).
My ability to write curriculum informed by current education research recommendations has led to textbook writing. I co-authored the 1998 McGraw-Hill text ACT in Algebra: Applications, Concepts and Technology in Learning Algebra, which lets applications (not definitions) launch the mathematics, incorporates modeling and technology appropriately, emphasizes conceptual understanding as well as computational skill, and has realistic acknowledgement of the role of factoring-dependent methods. In 2007, I was invited to succeed former ASA president (and Founder’s Award winner) David S. Moore on the distinguished Freeman/COMAP author team of the 8th (2009) and 9th(2013) editions of the applied math-for-liberal-arts textbook For All Practical Purposes and I had sole responsibility for its four statistics chapters. I then stepped down from the project to have time to direct my university’s teaching center, but the current edition retains a great deal of my contributions.
Much of my scholarship connects to grants. I served as PI of NSF TUES (formerly, CCLI) Type 1 grant proposals, including the EHR-funded 2012-2016 Project UPLIFT that designed and tested research-based classroom-tested items aiming to engage and support student learning of introductory statistics (e.g., see 2015TD and 2016 JSE papers). I am PI of the 2015-2020 NSF EAGER (DUE) grant Project SMILES to create a set of interactive educational songs and analyze data to assess how well the songs reduce student anxiety and increase learning of introductory statistics (see 2019 JSE paper). My past research involving standards and alignment led to my being PI of a 2008 award from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to be the higher education faculty chair of a Statewide Discipline-Based Vertical Team conducting gap analysis between the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and the Texas College Readiness Standards and I presented findings as an invited featured solo presentation at the 2008 Charles A. Dana Center Annual Mathematics and Science Higher Education Conference. Also, I shared equally the writing and PI roles with M. Tchoshanov on a six-figure 2005-2007 grant (“Evidence-based middle-school mathematics achievement program”) funded by the Texas Education Agency and our work yielded an invited half-plenary presentation at the 2006 Charles A. Dana Center’s Annual Mathematics and Science Higher Education Conference and a paper in Journal of Mathematics Education Leadership (with an extension appearing in Educational Studies in Mathematics). I have served as co-director/co-PI of over a quarter-million dollars’ worth of Teacher Quality grants (2 with M. Tchoshanov and 1 with O. Kosheleva). Throughout 2013, I served as a co-PI (with education researchers Song An and Daniel Tillman, and ethnomusicologist Andrea Shaheen) on a $20,000 Interdisciplinary Research (IDR) grant to research the impacts of preservice/inservice K-8 mathematics teachers’ use of music composition and musical instrument design as an authentic context for teaching mathematics. Also, I have also done key subaward work as part of other people’s grants, including an NSF CCLI Phase 2 grant, a Carnegie Foundation Teachers for a New Era grant, DoE (Project ACE and Project LEAP-UP) grants, THECB grants (SABE MAS and Master Teacher Academy) and the NSF-funded El Paso Mathematics Science Partnership. And while directing UTEP’s teaching center, I helped the center play a supporting role with several national grants or grant proposals.
Having spent almost my whole career in departments of mathematical sciences, I am in many ways a “mathematical scientist’s math educator.” Part of this refers to my strong mathematics/statistics content background/experience, which includes all coursework for a statistics PhD and work experience beyond academia as a statistician (which informs my article in the October 2012 Mathematics Teacher, for example) before I entered a mathematics education PhD program. Also, my strong content roots have clearly flavored my scholarship in terms of my instinct and passion for rigor, aesthetics, optimizing, parsimony, discovery, innovation, integration, etc. Mathematics or statistics content has frequently informed the development of my research questions in mathematics/statistics education. Along the way, I have made contributions to mathematical knowledge for teaching (MKT) such as exploring multiple representations of Simpson’s paradox, simple datasets yielding distinct basic summary statistics, and a number theory result sparked by exploring fraction arithmetic. I have written with distinguished mathematical scientists (e.g., textbook with COMAP authors; several papers with statisticians (e.g., Dennis Pearl, Amy Wagler, Mark Glickman, etc.), a paper with mathematician Joe A. Guthrie, and I have multiple paths with 4 as my Erdös number (and it’s only 2, if we count the FAPP textbook author team that included me and Alan D. Taylor).
I can also be described as having a liberal arts sensibility, beyond co-authoring a major liberal arts math textbook (For All Practical Purposes) and publishing in Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, and Journal for the Liberal Arts and Sciences. In addition to conducting various empirical quantitative and qualitative studies, I research ways to make mathematics/statistics more meaningful to students (and connected to the educational environment), using the depth and breadth of my background to bridge the literatures of mathematics, statistics, math education, statistics education, and varied other realms (e.g., lotteries, music, magic, ethics, social justice, culture/ethnomathematics, language, diversity, and contemplative pedagogy). My scholarship has spilled over into creative published forms such as songs, poems, humor, and appearances on radio/TV. Co-authors of my papers span many disciplines besides math/statistics education, including: mathematics, statistics, computer science, linguistics, bilingual education, philosophy, psychology, sociology, neuroscience, educational technology, business administration, and music.
I’ve had papers accepted in a variety of selective and highly-selective (with acceptance rates as low as 10%) juried research journals (e.g., Statistics Education Research Journal, Journal of Statistics Education) as well as in varied periodicals for a broader audience (e.g., Primus, Teaching Statistics, Mathematics Teacher, Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science, Statistics Teacher Network), cross-disciplinary venues (e.g., Journal for the Liberal Arts and Sciences, Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal), and periodicals in pedagogy or educational development (To Improve the Academy, The Teaching Professor).
My 135+ presentations at national/international conferences include ICOTS, USCOTS, ICTCM, AMTE, NCSM, NCTM, MAA, JMM, JSM, PME-NA, POD Network, ARUME, RCML, etc. I have given invited featured plenary presentations at national, regional, and local meetings, for audiences ranging from math teachers (e.g., opening plenary speaker for 2009 NCTM regional conference in Nashville) to statistics educators (featured 2013 USCOTS banquet presenter) to mathematicians (2008 MAA MathFest opening banquet).
My scholarship and research background has naturally guided my service to the profession, including: service as a founding Editor of Teaching for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics, an Associate Editor of Journal of Statistics Education, an Associate Editor of Journal of Mathematics and Culture, an Associate Editor of Model Assisted Statistics and Applications, and an Editorial Board member of Texas Mathematics Teacher. From spring 2013-summer 2016, I did the Assistant Editor work for the top-tier journal in statistics education: Statistics Education Research Journal. Also, I have done invited refereeing of papers for over a dozen journals (e.g., JRME, SERJ, etc.) and conferences (e.g., ICOTS, USCOTS, PME-NA, etc.). I have also served on program and other committees for various national or regional math/statistics/education conferences (e.g., USCOTS, MAA, NCTM, Western Statistics Teachers’ Conference) and (after winning a national election) served a 3-year term as Publications Chair for the Statistical Education Section of the American Statistical Association. I also served on the Professional Development Services Committee of NCTM. I have been deeply honored to be recognized for my service by local (Greater El Paso Council of teachers of Mathematics), state (Georgia Council of Teachers of Mathematics), and national (TODOS: Mathematics for ALL) organizations. I have served on the Research Advisory Board and the Editorial Board of CAUSE (Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education), On the state level, I did invited service in 2008 as faculty chair of a Statewide Discipline-Based Vertical Team on college readiness for the THECB and the TEA. At UTEP, my service activities have included chairing the UTEP Museum Committee (for 3 years), directing the campus-wide teaching center (for 3 years), and editing the math department’s annual newsletter (2005–present).
TEACHING & RELATED EXPERIENCE
My interest in mathematics was sparked by extracurricular mathematics activities, including UIL Number Sense, Mu Alpha Theta, Atlantic Region Mathematics League (I competed at this national meet as a member of the Texas delegation), and Putnam exams (scoring as high as 70th percentile nationwide). I learned there’s much mathematics beyond our textbooks and that “recreational mathematics” is not an oxymoron! I was fortunate to have many excellent professors in college (e.g., Dr. Richard Tapia) who helped prepare and inspire me to pursue graduate work. In my own teaching today, I strive similarly to give students high levels of challenge and support, broaden their view of how mathematics/statistics connects to other areas, and give them a view of how mathematics/statistics is done by real people in real life!
In graduate school at UT-Austin, I started with typical “pure math” courses before taking my first statistics class, which inspired me to go on to earn a masters’ degree in statistics, teach (and coordinate) statistics for UT business majors, pass some actuary exams, and work a couple of years as the sole staff statistician for the Texas Legislative Council (I helped research and implement methodology to estimate racial bloc voting for the redistricting project, a real-world experience of using mathematics outside academia that has given my classroom teaching additional authenticity). The professional tutoring I had done for a private company and various university departments and my non-tenure-track university teaching (spanning 16 (math or statistics, upper or lower-division) classes at St. Edward’s University, Southwestern University, and The University of Texas at Austin) helped me realize that, while I greatly enjoyed acquiring my solid background in mathematics and statistics content, I had still greater talents, interests and calling in the areas of curriculum and instruction, finding ways to make important content more accessible and interesting (valuable lesson: know that your direction may evolve, and that what you’ve learned may be useful later in unexpected ways!). I then pursued a PhD in Mathematics Education with the dissertation committee of Ralph Cain (chair), Ray Carry, Charles Lamb, Maggie Myers, and Mary Parker, and with valuable encouragement from Joan Garfield. I was the program’s first student to declare a specific focus (in terms of dissertation and coursework) in statistics education. It was (and still is) an exciting time for involvement in the areas of statistics education and mathematics education, which are growing rapidly, along with their overlap, and I’ve remained engaged with (and help bridge) both fields and their literatures. While in graduate school, I began receiving the first of what has been extensive media coverage (from local to international) for some of my outreach efforts, such as connecting mathematics/statistics to song or to the lottery (see https://larrylesser.com/?page_id=2100).
Upon receiving my PhD in 1994, I began teaching and developing/reforming numerous undergraduate and graduate courses (in statistics & statistics education, math & math education, math history, and research methodology) as an Assistant Professor for the mathematical sciences department of the University of Northern Colorado. I worked with middle/secondary pre-service and in-service teachers, helped coordinate seminars & conferences, and supervised tutors, student teachers, undergraduate research and doctoral dissertations. As a member of the competitively-selected first year’s team for the CCHE-funded Educational Technology Improvement Project, I gained experience in developing and implementing standards, performance-based assessments and rubrics (just as most states’ K-12 schools are required to implement) and was the first at UNC to integrate sustained, standards-based technology and reformed curriculum into the multi-section introductory statistics course. I was also active in the Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics (e.g., presentations and committee work for state/regional conferences) and was Vice-Chair of UNC’s Professional Education Council. At UNC, I also coordinated a multi-section introductory statistics course, a university-wide tutoring lab, and programmatic assessment reports.
In 1999, I began an Associate Professor position in the Department of Mathematics at Armstrong Atlantic State University (now called: Georgia Southern University–Armstrong Campus) to renew and broaden further my mathematics education background, especially into the elementary school curriculum — not only by teaching courses for pre-service elementary school teachers, but also by spending significant time in some local schools (from suburban to urban, such as Savannah’s East Broad Street ES, where I spent 50+ hours), observing and working with several in-service teachers and teaching some lessons myself. I also delivered in-service teacher training workshops — for individual schools as well as for larger educational organizations such as the AASU/Chatham County Public Schools Partnership Board, the Lowcountry Math and Science Hub, and even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum! Also, I spent two years strengthening my K-12 mathematics education experiential base by working as a full-time high school math teacher (and department chair) at Emery HS. Emery’s advisory activities, outdoor learning, field trips, and strong community service component/mission gave me deeper insight into how to support and motivate “the whole person.” My experience there teaching a range of students (e.g., from the 35th to the 99th percentiles) and courses (Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Precalculus, Calculus) greatly enhanced my subsequent work with pre-service and in-service teachers and yielded a 2006 paper in Journal of Mathematics and Culture.
In 2004, I accepted an Associate Professor position (and became a full Professor in 2011) in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso to have more opportunity for collaboration in rich cultural and natural environments. I’ve also enjoyed opportunities to team-teach in classroom and in field-based settings (e.g., an integrated block with COE faculty for UTEP pre-service teachers at Canutillo ES) as well as to co-write papers and grants. UTEP is an R1 university (the country’s only one with a Mexican-American majority student population) that is part of the University of Texas System (the nation’s second largest university system), where I began my teaching career in the ‘80s! Another attraction is that I have familial roots here, including relatives who taught for El Paso Community College and El Paso ISD.
My interactive, integrated style aims to give students of diverse backgrounds high levels of support and worthwhile challenge, to broaden their view of how real people do (and teach) mathematics that often connects to other areas, and to enhance their quantitative literacy. While my students do not always declare mathematics to be their favorite subject, they universally acknowledge that my enthusiasm and approachability makes the class a “safe environment” and allows them to experience greater enjoyment, interaction, meaning, and learning than they often had in prior mathematics classes. I appropriately draw from a broad pedagogical repertoire that includes manipulatives, technology, mass media, multiple representations, writing, traditional and alternative assessment, standards-based education, classroom voting cards, math history, equity/diversity awareness, cooperative learning activities, real-world applications and connections, literature, problem solving, student-collected data and the occasional mathematical magic trick or math song! I’ve done outreach events such as Pi Day educational events (at elementary, middle, and high schools), adult education classes in lottery literacy, and lessons for radio and TV! My scholarship on engagement and my ability to write curriculum informed by the latest education research recommendations has led to major textbook writing and yielded recognitions from my institution and beyond.
I grew up in Houston and have also lived in Austin, Greeley (CO), Savannah (GA), and now El Paso. My family tree is full of people who supported education in Texas, such as my father’s mother Julia Lesser (who taught mathematics with distinction for over 25 years in the Fort Worth public schools) and her sister Sadie Streusand (a teacher and counselor in the Houston public schools), who turned me on to the enrichment of extracurricular mathematics organizations and contests. Also, my great aunt Matilda Amstater Shanblum was Teacher of the Year (and later an assistant principal) at El Paso’s Zach White ES (where her daughter Frances Kahn taught upper elementary grades for 13 years), director of the El Paso Teachers Association, and the person for whom the first education scholarship fund at UTEP for future teachers is named. The University of Houston’s highest faculty honor is named after another aunt: the Esther Farfel Award. My mother’s father Bernard Farfel was the visionary behind the founding (in 1963) of the Jewish Institute for Medical Research, which launched the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in the Baylor College of Medicine. My maternal uncle Barry Goodfriend MD was one of two alumni recipients of a 2017 Distinguished Service Award from the Baylor College of Medicine. I aim to continue honoring their example with my service in the field.
Though I love my job (longest and best one I’ve had!), I am more than my job. That is, I am also a guitarist, a songwriter, a spiritual seeker, a compassionate friend, a man who cherishes his soulmate, son, and dogs. With my son now in college, I see higher education as a parent, as well as a professor and alumnus. I love to read, hike, and spend time with my family and friends. I’ve been published as a journalist, songwriter (I’ve had songs recorded on indie artists’ albums and won awards in general and discipline-specific song contests), poet, and humorist. Of course, my “outside-the-job passions” like music or poetry sometimes find their way into my professional world anyway, which yields a more interesting and integrated life!