Developing “Mathematical Spaces”: TC Professor (and former Minority Postdoctoral | Teachers College Columbia University

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Developing “Mathematical Spaces”: TC Professor (and former Minority Postdoctoral Fellow) Erica Walker


In recent years, authorities ranging from classroom teachers to Oprah have embraced the power of “literary spaces” such as book clubs, poetry readings, and spoken word contests to enhance student exploration of literature and self-expression

If Erica Walker has her way, it won’t be long before educators also recognize the untapped potential of what she terms “mathematical spaces” to get students excited about learning math in creative ways beyond the schoolroom walls.

Click here to learn more about the TC Minority Postdoctoral Fellowship Program

Walker, TC Professor of Mathematics Education and a former TC Minority Postdoctoral Fellow, spoke about mathematical spaces this past August when she delivered the prestigious Etta Z. Falconer Lecture at the centennial meeting of the Mathematical Association of America. Now she is in the process of cataloguing, documenting, and analyzing a variety of such spaces as part of a larger research effort that “will really help parents and educators think about how they can make math more engaging for young people – both within and beyond schools.”

Walker says the idea grew out of research for her most recent book, Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence (now available in paperback and in a Kindle edition), which explores the formative experiences of accomplished black mathematicians.  Many of their stories, she says, reflect the influence of encounters with people and places well beyond the mathematics classroom. Those stories got her thinking about the possibilities for rich mathematics learning and socialization experiences in out-of-school spaces.


The idea took on added excitement when a friend sent her a photograph of a man writing math problems in chalk on the sidewalk on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. By inviting passersby to solve and discuss the problems, the man was creating a public mathematical space -- one of many, Walker says, where “people who think they aren’t math people” may be drawn into a world they will ultimately find exciting and challenging.

Walker has long been interested in the social and cultural aspects of math education. Her dissertation analyzed racial and gender differences in the educational paths of high school students, documenting that black boys were the least likely group to persist in the math “pipeline.” She began expanding that research during her TC postdoctoral year to explore the influence of peer groups and broader academic communities on student achievement and interest in math. Ultimately she developed a professional development model for math education that helps teachers better understand their students and engage in pedagogical practices that can be most effective for students from a range of backgrounds.

Minority Postdoctoral Fellow Spotlights

Walker, a native of Atlanta and former high school math teacher, came to TC as a Minority Postdoctoral Fellow in 2001-02 after earning her doctorate in Administration, Planning and Social Policy. She planned on staying in New York City for just a year and to continue focusing primarily on policy issues at the time. But the fellowship, which situated her in TC’s Mathematics Education program “was a good reintroduction to math education.” When the department opened a search for a new full-time faculty member,. Walker applied and got the job. Somewhat to her own surprise, she found herself staying on in New York City.

“I’m very much a daughter of the South, and I thought I’d end up back in the South,” she says with a laugh. “It’s not what happened, but it’s been great.”

Even though she ended up staying at TC, Walker says the fellowship year proved an invaluable “space” of its own, not only reviving her passion for math education, but giving her the opportunity to learn how to run a major research study and “have the luxury of time – time to think, to write, to figure out this academic enterprise without the pressure that instantly comes with being on the tenure track.”

And, she says, a fellowship that makes explicit a commitment to nurturing scholars from underrepresented groups is as vital as ever.

“We'd all have been successful professors, I don't doubt, without it,” she says, “but to have a year or two to focus on one's research agenda, acclimate to life in the academy, and engage with peers and mentors across various disciplines before starting a tenure track position gave many of us a leg up that historically has been provided to some and withheld from others.” – Ellen Livingston

Published Thursday, Mar 3, 2016

Dr. Erica N. Walker
Dr. Erica N. Walker, Professor of Mathematics Education
Erica Walker
Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excel­lence, by Erica Walker