How students become mathematicians

Adolescents try on many identities, and a Montclair State researcher is studying what that means when it comes to math. Jamaal Matthews, an educational foundations professor, has received a five-year, $730,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation to support his research on how African American and Latino adolescents in urban schools come to see themselves as mathematicians.

“Early adolescence is when conceptions of identity and social status become more complex,” says Matthews. “This project assesses how teacher-student interactions, student responses to culture and stigma and cognitive flexibility support identity construction processes for students in math.”

By integrating social-cognitive and social-cultural approaches to understanding math identity formation, Matthews will explore issues behind learning and participation in math in sixth- and ninth-grade African American and Latino students recruited from Newark public schools. Research will focus on how interaction with teachers contributes to students’ math identities, as well as on how these identities change.

Matthews will train 12 undergraduates to mentor up to 48 sixth-graders per academic year. The prestigious CAREER award funds the research initiatives of faculty who are at the beginning of their academic careers.

“This is important work in ensuring that all students have the support they need to thrive in school,” says College of Education and Human Services Dean Francine Peterman. “This research represents the College’s commitment to creating a healthier, more educated and socially just world.”

The idea for the project, titled, “How Urban Adolescents Come to Think of Themselves as Mathematicians,” grew out of Matthews’ early career experiences as a middle school math teacher in the Bronx, New York. “It lets me really test ideas I’ve been playing around with for a while but haven’t had the resources to research on my own,” he says.