Sandy Poinsett Noted for Women + STEM Advocacy, Individualized Classroom Work
Sandy Poinsett remembers taking her first math class at Indiana University in the late 1960s. She stepped into her Calculus I classroom and was faced with a sea of men. Out of the more than 200 students in the course, there was only one other female student along with Poinsett.
“The two of us sat in the front row,” Poinsett said, smiling at the memory. “We were motivated. We were both very focused. And I think we ended up getting some of the best grades.”
Poinsett, a longtime math professor at the College of Southern Maryland (CSM), tells this story and others to illustrate the inequity she has seen and experienced in math education during her career. Poinsett has worked hard at CSM to change that inequity where women are concerned. But her passion for math education doesn’t end with women’s inclusion. Her teaching style in the classroom is designed to help students of both sexes find math approachable. “I want to make math great again,” she said.
It is for these efforts that Poinsett was honored this year with the CSM Faculty Excellence Award, an annual award honoring one member of the college’s permanent faculty. Poinsett’s award was announced at the college’s spring commencement ceremony May 18 at the La Plata Campus.
“It’s a big shock,” she said of the honor, adding that winning the award might be the thing she is most proud of from her career, which spans 20 years teaching math at CSM, 40 years as a private math tutor and three years as a high school math teacher.
Poinsett grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at a time when girls were expected to grow up to be a teacher, a nurse, a mom or a secretary, she said.
“I had an extremely high math SAT score, and no one said to me, ‘Hey, why don’t you consider engineering or architecture?’” As a first-generation college student, she said her world was narrow. Her ideas about what she could pursue were already limited, and the subtle and not-so-subtle messages that others communicated about women in math-related fields were not encouraging.
When Poinsett began teaching at CSM in 1997 and especially when she started teaching calculus in 2002, she could see that the world hadn’t changed very much from her years back at Indiana University. “I was still only seeing one girl out of 30 students,” she said.
This is when Poinsett became an advocate. “My goal was just to make sure young women were aware of the opportunities available if they were good at math.”
Professor Tom Seremet, a longtime CSM colleague, says that Poinsett has been successful in this. “She has changed the playing field,” he said. “What she’s done is help give young women the confidence and motivation to take math.”
In 2004, Poinsett was awarded grant funding from the Association of Women in Mathematics to start, with the help of Associate Professor Donna Sperry, the Women + Math program at the college. Now, with assistance from both Professor Dr. Stephanie McCaslin and Adjunct Faculty Kim Lukas, the program has expanded into “Women + STEM.” With continuing support from the CSM Foundation, the program includes an annual conference where women in math-related and similar fields like engineering speak to young women about their career path and the opportunities available. It’s all about exposure to what is possible and inspiration for the younger women. For instance, this year the conference featured Lt. Rebecca Shaw, a test pilot for the U.S. Navy, as the keynote speaker.
Seremet credits this and Poinsett’s related efforts as the cause for a remarkable change in higher level math classes at CSM, he said. “In the past, it was pretty much all boys in the advanced math classes. Now there’s as many girls,” Seremet said. “And with confidence and energy, those girls are achieving every bit as much as the boys.” This year, for instance, CSM’s outstanding math and engineering awards were both given to young women.
Poinsett agrees change is happening, albeit slowly. She sees the more even ratios in her classes in recent years, she said, but notes that, even still, in her most advanced classes like Calculus III, women comprise only about 20 percent of the class.
In the classroom, Poinsett says her expectations are high. But her own background as a first-generation college student who had to work her way through school makes her sensitive to the difficulties facing her students. She believes that, “By being responsive to my students needs along with giving them a safe environment to learn, I feel that they can be empowered to reach for new challenges and accomplish their goals.”
She starts her classes with an activity that allows the students to start talking and getting to know one another. She wants to foster a collaborative classroom where students work together and there is plenty of discussion. “I am not a lecturer,” Poinsett said.
She is quick to learn all her students’ names. “I try to develop a relationship with them. So, later, I can maybe say something positive or motivating to them.”
Poinsett uses a variety of techniques to help her students achieve success. Students are assigned concept quizzes, which are pre-lecture quizzes on material that will be talked about in class. These give students a chance to familiarize themselves with the new vocabulary and concepts before hearing about them in class.
Poinsett has developed a technique designed to help students who failed or received a D on the first test. These students complete a reflection paper about their preparation for the test, are allowed to make corrections on the test and then must visit her in her office to discuss these.
Finally, Poinsett assesses students as they work on examples. She walks around the room checking their answers, and giving them clues about where they went wrong if their answer is incorrect. She says this assessment gives her a sense of who is understanding and who is struggling and gives students immediate feedback.
Overall, her goal is “to stimulate my students’ intellectual curiosity by bringing a positive energy to the classroom and helping them prepare to meet the ever-changing needs of their communities now and in the future.”
When the Faculty Excellence Award was announced, Seremet was quoted as saying, “If you monitor the many things Sandy does here at CSM there is a common theme. She promotes the welfare of the individual student first and then takes that base and connects it to the academic achievement of the student. She is a very caring professor.”
Poinsett lives in Hughesville with her husband, Rod, whom she met at Indiana University in that 200+ student Calculus I class.
CSM Department Chair Andrea Ronaldi noted that multiple faculty excellence awards have been awarded to CSM math, physics and engineering faculty over the years, a testament to the strength of that division.
“On behalf of the math, physics and engineering division, congratulations to Professor Sandra Poinsett for the 2016-2017 Faculty Excellence Award. Sandy joins past recipients of the Faculty Excellence Award for this division — Dave Reichard in 1989, William Emley in 1992, Steve Hundert in 2004, Tom Seremet in 2009, Sue Strickland in 2011 and John Warren in 2014,” Ronaldi said. “The excellence of our faculty is one of many reasons why CSM is a great choice for academic pursuits. Congratulations to Sandy on this award and thank you for your efforts in and out of the classroom.”
For information on CSM’s Faculty Excellence Awards and previous awardees, visit http://www.csmd.edu/about/faculty-excellence-awards/. For information about STEM at CSM, visit http://stem.csmd.edu/.