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Boosting the Numbers

Nathan Alexander wants to ensure that other minority students pursue studies in math

Nathan Alexander wants to ensure that other minority students pursue studies in math

By Siddhartha Mitter

Nathan Alexander has always been good at math. Attracted by its rigor and clarity, he majored in the subject at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and as a trained dancer and choreographer he once wrote a paper relating dance motion to the theory of fractals.

Alexander’s decision to become a math teacher stems partly from a desire to share his enthusiasm for numbers --but he has another, more pressing reason, as well.

“I’ve always been one of just two or three black students in mathematics, and by the time I was a college math major, there was no one else,” he says. “That’s something I want to change.”

As a doctoral student at TC, working closely with his mentor, faculty member Erica Walker, Alexander is studying the role of peer networks in the way urban males--particularly black and Latino--learn mathematics.

By first spending a semester teaching math to the youth in his research project and getting to know them personally, Alexander has been able to capture the student interaction around mathematics--hallway chat, last-minute homework help, even text messages—that standard surveys might miss.

In the process he has formed some impressions that run counter to conventional wisdom.

“A lot of the buzz around urban schools is that teachers aren’t connecting with their students, particularly black and Latino males,” Alexander says. “But these males have really positive attitudes about their teachers. They identified them as huge markers of, ‘I can be successful if I do well.’”

Alexander hopes his research will generate practical tools that enable teachers to capitalize on this good will and help students learn mathematics in ways that fit their natural social interactions.

Alexander also applies his interest in learning networks to his own peers at TC. As Vice President of Academic Affairs of TC’s Black Students Network, he runs a speaker series and an annual conference, seeking to create a space on a daily basis where not just African-American but all minority students feel welcome.

In practice, this involves saying hello a lot--to everyone. “I looked crazy my first two years here,” Alexander says. “But I do it now regardless: if I see someone I say hello. Especially here. Because we have different research interests, but we are here because there is an issue we all want to fix. The connections we make today will have an impact on the future.”

Published Thursday, May. 19, 2011


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