Dr. Sarah Berenson’s grandchildren pasted an orange sticky note adorned with stars and peace signs on her office door: “Math is awesome. Math is cool.” Berenson has a way of helping kids warm up to math. She’s built her career on it.

Berenson, who retires from the School of Education July 31, spent 23 years at NC State directing a research center for math and science education before she came to UNCG in 2007 as the Yopp Distinguished Professor of Mathematics Education. She was the principal investigator for a National Science Foundation STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) grant that examined young women’s career choices.

More recently, she has studied methods for teaching math to elementary students of both genders.

“Our findings indicate that low-risk settings with real children such as after school enrichment, Saturday academies, summer programs, and math clubs are very beneficial for teacher learning,” she says. “Many are still using the old stimulus-response method: I’ll tell you how to and you go do it. It’s very important for children to have some role in creating the learning, so that they consider it to be theirs.”

Her current On Track Project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education through two Congressionally-directed grants in 2009 and 2010 sponsored by Rep. Howard Coble and Rep. Brad Miller, involves twice-weekly after school enrichment with public schools kids in grades 3-5. The goal is to help kids recognize patterns and generate formulas – to think algebraically before they even know what algebra means.

“These are kids who are certainly not in the upper quartile in math,” she says. “What we found was that these children can be very successful in early algebra. Children are capable of much more than we sometimes think they can do.”

By way of explaining her method, Berenson makes a quick sketch on a piece of paper. She draws a square. Then two connected squares. Then three.

The squares are tables, she says. So how many can sit at one table? Four. What about two tables? Six. And three tables? Eight.

So, by examining the pattern, students can derive a rule such as “you add 2 each time to the output” or a formula: Two times the number of tables (n) plus two yields the number of people (p) who can be seated, or 2n+2=p. She will continue this work as distinguished professor emerita on a subcontract with Rutgers University next year.

Berenson’s first On Track study, Girls on Track, turned out to be, in her words, disappointing. In that study, her team tracked more than 300 girls over nine years.

They followed the girls, all talented math students, from 7th grade through college. Only two young women became mathematicians or engineers; half went into humanities or social science fields.
The girls, like many GenX-ers, wanted to control their work-life balance, wanted flexible hours and above all wanted careers that helped people, Berenson says.

So STEM, in essence, has a marketing problem.

“I don’t think we can count on that group of young women making contributions to STEM unless STEM addresses how the hard sciences – mathematics, engineering, and technology – can help people,” she says. “The sciences can help people in very many ways, not just hands-on with individuals.”

Photography by Chris English, University Relations