By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend
Peter Olszewski, lecturer in mathematics
The adage that two heads are better than one is certainly true at universities where faculty members often collaborate with colleagues on research projects. Sometimes, the partners sit a few offices away from each other. Other times, they are a several states away. Occasionally, they are on the other side of the globe.
Such is the case for Peter Olszewski, a lecturer in mathematics, whose research partner, Dickson Owiti, is 7,600 miles away in Kenya.
Olszewski and Owiti met at the Joint Math Meetings conference in San Diego in 2013 and realized they had similar research interests.
“We are both interested in how math education should be set up at the high school level to adequately prepare students for the transition to college,” Olszewski said.
Olszewski said he appreciated and recognized the assertive tone that Owiti took in his work.
“We are very similar in that way and I thought we’d work well together,” Olszewski said.
Owiti agreed and the two began a joint research project surveying their first-year students and teaching them effective study skills.
While you might think two countries would have different problems, Olszewski said math students in Kenya struggle in the same ways students in the United States do, namely transition problems from high school to college, and a lack of strong algebra and trigonometry skills, and too many modern distractions.
In June, Olszweski traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to join Owiti and present their findings at the Strathmore International Mathematics Conference. They shared three papers and led a workshop on researchable problems in mathematics education for undergraduate mathematics education students.
Owiti and Olszewski
“Both Owiti and I gave the students some ideas of current topics they could use in their senior research projects,” Olszewski said. “Our suggestions were well received; they loved our ideas.”
Among their top findings: High school teachers are not using homework effectively and are giving students lots of the same work, rather than challenging them to problem-solve through critical thinking; students are not being taught how to study (something they will need to do in college); and they are often looking at improper sources for more information, i.e. YouTube, Wikipedia, etc.
“We are seeing two major trends,” Olszewski said. “Students are not using equal signs correctly and they are not making connections between concepts; they are cramming for assessments and not looking at the big picture.”
While in Kenya, Olszewski also got an education of a different sort.
“My mother traveled with me as she had always wanted to visit Africa, and we went on a safari in the Nairobi National Park,” he said. “It was really wonderful, but it turned a little gruesome when we witnessed a lion killing a water buffalo calf.”
They also toured an elephant orphanage and a giraffe sanctuary, where things were a little more upbeat.
Olszewski and Owiti are polishing up their research paper now and are looking forward to their next project, which they have already been invited to speak about at the next conference in Nairobi in 2019.