Inspiring more math majors

Lesa Covington Clarkson knows that mentors make a difference

In eighth grade, Lesa Covington Clarkson was struck in a three-car accident outside her Los Angeles middle school. The care and concern she received from one of her teachers during recovery led her to pursue a career in teaching.

“It makes such a huge difference when someone takes interest in you and believes in you,” she says.

Covington Clarkson is an associate professor of mathematics education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Last year, she began a near-peer tutoring program to motivate youth in the Twin Cities to love math like she does.

Students’ futures in math are created in junior high, says Clarkson, when they are left behind if they don’t excel. By the time they get to college, it’s usually too late to include mathematics as a major.

In 2011, when algebra became an eighth-grade math requirement in Minnesota, Covington Clarkson was concerned. She knew that urban kids were generally behind based on all accountability measures. She had also observed that student diversity in mathematics courses diminished at the upper levels—as if the mathematics and melatonin genes were somehow connected, she remarks tartly.

So began Prepare2Nspire, a peer-based tutoring program that brings together students at different academic levels to tutor one another. On Monday nights during the academic year, undergraduates from the University of Minnesota each meet with three eleventh graders from local public schools. Those same eleventh graders are paired with two eighth graders to tutor on Saturday mornings.

Clarkson believes that the process helps not only those being tutored, but also the students teaching the math. Her premise is that, through working with other students, teens master the concepts themselves.

“As I was learning mathematics, I became a much better student when I started tutoring,” she says. “You’re not only helping that person but you’re also helping yourself.”

Though only in its second year, Prepare2Nspire has produced strong results among its 135 students: 65 percent of the participating eleventh-grade students increased their math scores by more than 10 percent, and the majority of eighth graders increased their scores by 9 percent. Covington Clarkson has seen students switch prospective colleges and majors because of the work they did in the program.

One high school student had missed the deadline when her principal made a plea on her behalf. Covington Clarkson allowed her into the first cohort, and her SAT-level math score increased by 50 percent. The student now attends the University and hopes to become a math teacher herself.

“It can change a community,” says Covington Clarkson. “When communities don’t have the same opportunities, we’re talking about really changing lives.”

A different path

Covington Clarkson’s interest in mathematics began at her Lutheran high school in Los Angeles. Upon graduation, she attended Concordia University in Nebraska, where many of her teachers had gone to college. With a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical education, Covington Clarkson returned to her own high school for her first teaching position.

Wanting more, she finished her master’s at California State University, Los Angeles. At the University of Minnesota, she became the first African American to complete a Ph.D. in mathematics education.

“It’s been a different path—it’s been a lonely path,” she says. “It wasn’t easy being either the only female or the only African American.”

Covington Clarkson is now helping to lead the University’s STEM Education Center, working closely with faculty and students who aim to improve science, technology, engineering, and math education. Through efforts including the peer-based tutoring method of Prepare2Nspire, she hopes to inspire more college math majors.

“I love doing what I am doing,” she says. “I feel that I’ve found my place.”

Read more about Lesa Covington Clarkson and Prepare2Nspire.

Learn more about the STEM Education Center and the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Story by Ali Lacey | October 2014