Update: In this story lecturer Nandini Bhattacharya was described as laid off by the PBSci division and rehired by the Hispanic Serving Institute (HSI). We’d like to clarify Bhattacharya was not rehired by the PBSci division, rather she was rehired by the division of Student Success and Retention, which houses HSI initiatives.


Since Nandini Bhattacharya was laid off from the physical and biological sciences (PBSci) division in August of last year, students across campus — predominantly students of color — have been wondering what will happen to the Math 2 classes she taught for nearly 10 years.

“PBSci’s decision [to lay off Bhattacharya] can lead to the funneling of students of color out of STEM and out of this institution, which contradicts UC Santa Cruz’s principles of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity,’” according to an open letter by Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), a political student organization that focuses on empowering the Chicanx/ Latinx community.

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Yet, because Bhattacharya works closely with Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) initiatives, the department rehired her to lead a redesigned version of Math 2.

Students coming into UCSC now have two options for taking Math 2 — one taught by Professor Debra Lewis called Adaptive Instruction Math 2 (AI-Math 2) or one taught by Bhattacharya called Collaborative Learning Math 2 (CL-Math 2).

Both classes are much smaller than the traditional large lectures, which were referred to as the “dumping grounds of UCSC” by Pablo Reguerin, assistant vice provost of student success who helped redesign CL-Math 2 as a part of an HSI initiative. His office oversees Educational Opportunity Programs, Learning Support Services and HSI, which aims to help Latinx students succeed.

“Schools and institutions all have places where they put students that maybe we don’t all think deserve to be here or maybe we don’t have the highest expectations,” Reguerin said.

Now, the HSI, PBSci division and the math department are all working toward a solution by adding instruction, class time and money.Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 8.24.52 PM

Professor Debra Lewis, who designed and teaches AI-Math 2, said students of color often come into Math 2 with a negative relationship to math based on bad experiences, inexperienced teachers and test anxiety from K-12 education.

In the AI-Math 2 class, students discuss ideas like the concept of stereotype threat, or the idea that women and students of color underperform in math under pressure because of a fear of confirming stereotypes. Lewis structured the course around reassuring students in their math ability and developing more college-level study skills to bridge the gaps from K-12.

“They have had so many years of accumulated negative experience, and so they have just kind of lost any belief in their ability,” Lewis said. “[…] You don’t have to like it, but you know you can do it.”

In AI-Math 2, students work in small groups to complete math problems using web-based work modules from the software Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces (ALEKS). Lewis said the ALEKS module instills more confidence in students because homework and exams look exactly the same on the software, minimizing test-taking pressures.

While the adaptive version places an emphasis on group discussions, the CL-Math 2 course, taught by lecturer Nandini Bhattacharya, caters to students who need more structure and hands-on support. Because CLMath 2 was developed and partially funded by HSI, it focuses on serving students of color, who often need more support, Reguerin said. This is why four teaching assistants (TAs), rather than the usual two, accompany the course.

“We said, ‘What if we put instruction first?’ And [we] put everything we know about math education, teaching, learning — with a focus on students of color, ” said Reguerin, who developed this version of Math 2 with Bhattacharya.

The distinguishing feature of CLMath 2 is the extensive instructor and TA trainings on addressing cultural competency, active learning and maintaining inclusivity in the classroom.

The adaptive and collaborative versions of the course were first offered in fall 2016 and will be offered again this coming fall as experiments to address the needs of students entering the university without college-level math skills.

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In the past, Black and Latinx students failed Math 2 at double the rate of their white counterparts, Reguerin said.

“We have been taking away resources from students who are highest need in terms of their math placement, and rather than looking at them as high potential students who with some math support could go on,” Reguerin said at a public HSI forum, “we have been reducing our resources in that area by pushing them up to the higher division and it is a highly racialized issue.”

Reguerin said Math 2 was continuing to underserve students with the most need, following a trend many of these students have seen throughout their poorly resourced K-12 education — which placed them in this lower-level math course in the first place.

Less than a third of Math 2 students actually went on to graduate with STEM degrees, said PBSci Associate Dean Dave Belanger, who controls the funding for math. As PBSci started looking into the cause of the low graduation rates, they found it was the existing placement test.

Using a former version of the math placement test in the 2014-15 school year, 786 students placed into Math 2. This led to overfilled lectures, which stretched the lecturer and TAs thin.

To address this, professor Debra Lewis found ALEKS Placement, Preparation and Learning (PPL), an online exam that placed only 297 students into Math 2 in the 2015- 16 school year. The exam could also be administered to students over the summer in their own homes and would allow them to retest throughout the summer. But there have been questions as to whether it actually benefited students.

Sarahi G. Ramirez, a first-year and first-generation student, felt she didn’t benefit from the ALEKS PPL exam. Instead of taking Math 2 her freshman year, which she initially placed in, Ramirez took Math 11A, a calculus class.

As a graduate of a significantly underfunded high school in San Diego with a majority Latinx student body, she said her education often was affected because minimally experienced teachers would teach for a couple years without a set curriculum and then leave to get a higher paying job or because they had paid off their loans.

She said her high school precalculus teacher took this into account when teaching the class and offered extra credit and the opportunity to retake tests.

“She really wanted to help the students,” Ramirez said. “But at the same time that kind of hurts the students because you really don’t learn much.”

Illustration by Owen Thomas.
Illustration by Owen Thomas.

Ramirez did as her precalculus class taught her to do — she retook the ALEKS PPL exam three times, just shy of the allowed five retakes, to place into Math 11A. She worried having to take Math 2 could jeopardize her chances of graduating on time, but later couldn’t pass 11A and had to drop her STEM degree and pursue linguistics.

Ramirez’s story isn’t uncommon, lecturer Nandini Bhattacharya said, as it is part of the K-12 cycle of giving the least amount of support and resources to the students with the most need.

“As a campus, and not just UCSC, it’s a statewide and national issue,” Pablo Regeurin said, “[we] have struggled to figure out how to effectively serve students that are coming in at this level.”