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Meet Stephanie Salomone: New MAA Project NExT Associate Director

For as long as Stephanie Salomone can remember, she always loved learning. Her parents — an educator and an engineer — encouraged Salomone throughout her childhood to gain a variety of learning experiences, including everything from mathematics to music lessons to exploring the world around her. Now, teaching (and more specifically, teaching well) is Salomone’s primary passion. As a professor starting July 1 and chair of mathematics at the University of Portland, and as the director of the university’s STEM Education and Outreach Center, Salomone spends her time both teaching students directly and working with faculty on professional development and pedagogical change.

In July 2021, Salomone will join the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) as the new associate director of MAAProject NExT — a professional development program for new or recent Ph.D.s in the mathematical sciences, which has served over 1,700 Fellows. A Project NExT’er herself, Stephanie brings a unique perspective and set of experiences to the role, which she has shared with us for our June MAA Spotlight. Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Can you tell us about your path into mathematics?

I started college knowing that I wanted to be a math teacher. I was a math major from day one and never wavered. However, when I asked to declare an honors math major track, I was told by my advisor that I was, “not serious enough to be an honors math major at the University of Michigan,” which was a tough blow. He’d never met me before that day, and I couldn’t understand what he was basing his judgment on until I talked to the handful of women math majors, and he’d said similar things to them, and in one case he’d been much more overt about what he was really saying. His judgment was hurtful, and it was not my first experience with sexism in STEM (and certainly not the last). I didn’t let it go, and I found a new advisor, and I worked very hard and used every support I could find to complete the degree. When I look back now, I realize how damaging and discouraging comments like that can be for students, and I am mindful of my words and actions and think about their impacts.

Teaching well was, and continues to be, my primary motivator for further educational opportunities. What has changed over time are the students I am working with — from high schoolers to undergraduates to K-12 teachers to university STEM faculty. When I started my graduate work at Boston College, I was in a secondary teacher credentialing program, but decided midway through that I wanted to teach mathematics in higher education. I switched to the M.A. in Mathematics program at Boston College and applied to Ph.D. programs. Even while I was doing mathematical research in harmonic analysis for my Ph.D., I knew that I would be seeking out positions at universities that had a strong emphasis on teaching. I was involved then, as I am now, in outreach and professional development for K-12 mathematics teachers. Now, so much of my scholarly work is vastly different than my graduate research, and I have found a way to combine my passions for mathematics and education in my scholarship of faculty professional development and educator pedagogical change. I continue to take advantage of many opportunities to improve my own practice.

Have there been any significant figures in your life who you think influenced your career?

I think being raised by an educator and an engineer had a huge impact on who I became and what I do, and in many ways, being a mathematician and math educator was a way to mix my parents’ careers in a way that makes sense. My parents supported my passions, and I think each understood me in different ways that complemented each other. I’m so thankful to have them, and my memories from childhood, to look to as I raise my own children.

There were lots of teachers who supported me, too, in school, then college, and in graduate school. For example, I was a math major who took many, many courses in children’s literature, and even studied both at Oxford University, which baffled my tutors there. I found two professors, Dr. Tim Hsu, who was a post-doc in mathematics at Michigan, and Carolyn Balducci, my writing professor in the Residential College at Michigan, to supervise my thesis on the mathematics of Escher’s tessellations. The final product was a giant coffee table book, a mix of art and mathematics, a tool for teaching others, and evidence of the intersection of the humanities and math. It was such a gift to work on it with them.

I can say, though, that one challenge that I faced was that there were very few women in mathematics, particularly in higher ed, that I could look to as role models. I was 3-4 years into my second graduate program before I met two women, Dr. Lesley Ward and Dr. Christina Pereyra, who were tenured faculty members who were passionate about teaching andhad families. I’d been told that I’d have to choose, career or family, and that was something that gave me pause until I met women who successfully navigated, and were navigating, having both.

You were a 2005 Project NExT Fellow. What was that experience like?

I have so much respect for Project NExT as an organization that supports the development of new mathematics faculty and builds community among its members. I’d had a wonderful group of friends in graduate school, and we supported each other through so many challenges. I had a lot of anxiety about whether or not I would find a kindred community once I was a faculty member, and yet that was exactly what NExT offered. At our first meeting, I realized that being a “dot” meant that I was part of a community of learners and that I could ask any question of my cohort and find empathy, support, and answers. I helped organize a NExT session on balancing academia and parenthood and realized again that this balance was hard but possible. Being a Project NExT Fellow meant that I never felt the isolation that so many feel when they move to a new place, for a job where they don’t know anyone.

In 2005 and 2006, we were talking about teaching, applying for grants, and navigating departmental politics. I can see that some things have stayed the same in the last 16 years — there is still a focus on teaching and succeeding in the field — but the intentional addition of talks on equity and inclusive practices, and the expansion of sharing on evidence-based instructional practices will create more impactful and effective educators. The attention to increasing the diversity of NExT Fellows, consultants, and speakers also signals a positive change for Project NExT and, I hope that the mathematical community at large will follow suit.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

First, my piano teacher always told me that she wanted me to Make Loud Mistakes. She said that if I tried to hide my errors, she would not be able to help me fix them. She celebrated my mistakes because they helped me to understand, to perform better, and to figure out what worked best for me. This is true in the classroom as well — I want students to share their conceptions of what we are learning, with me and with their peers. When they make mistakes, I want to hear them, help students deconstruct them and fix them, so we can all move forward together.

Second, my childhood gymnastics coach always got down on the mat with us at the end of a workout to do sit-ups, and she modeled that she would never ask us to do anything that she wasn’t also willing to do. I take this into my classroom as well — as a member of a community of learners, I have to be willing to be vulnerable and open to learning, to admit when there is something I don’t know, and curious about my students’ thinking. The process of going from not knowing to knowing can be uncomfortable, and when we as faculty learn how to leverage student thinking, center equity, and create inclusive environments, we are joining our students in that learning discomfort, and that is, in my opinion, a very good thing.

How do you specifically support your students through "Making Loud Mistakes"?

You know, it really depends on the student, and the moment, so supporting students well means getting to know them before they make mistakes. All of our students are different, and as educators, we should take on understanding their needs as individual humans.

It can be challenging to create a space where students feel safe taking risks and making mistakes, and so I often start with an explicit learning goal that I want my students to learn to find comfort in the discomfort of learning something new. I own my discomfort when faced with something I don’t know much about — like talking about politics or religion — and we can name experiences that we’ve had that help us to find comfort in those spaces. So often, this comes down to not being “alone and wrong.”

We tell students that making mistakes is an important part of getting better, but so often faculty focus on metaphors to sports, or music, or other “practice makes perfect” disciplines, undermining the message and centering muscle memory (like rote learning). I tend to be much more explicit but private when calling out mistakes and write students personal thank you notes, listing specific ways in which their mistake moved our class knowledge forward. This demonstrates the ways that I value their attempts and risk-taking and shows them the personal attention that all students need.

Can you elaborate more on the importance of vulnerability in the classroom?

I believe that both the teacher and the learner are in vulnerable positions and that we can only use that vulnerability when we respect the common humanity of every member of the classroom community. We need to see each other, understand each other, and know each other. And since faculty are in a position of power in the classroom, it is on us to model what vulnerability can look like.

On the last day of in-person instruction, on March 13, 2020, my real analysis class and I took some time to check in with each other. We talked about how we would handle remote instruction. The seniors talked about their frustrations around missing major end-of-college celebrations. We talked about what good may come from the pandemic and the ways in which we would continue to be there for each other. In the middle of this, one of my students asked me, “Are you going to be ok?”

I don’t remember if I cried in class, or if I made it back to my office, but even thinking about it now brings back the emotions, anxiety, and uncertainty of that moment, and how I felt like I had to be so strong for my students, and for my own children. As a department chair, I was trying to process the teaching needs of my faculty, and trying to make sure they had the supplies they needed to teach from home. I was worried and overwhelmed by all that we didn’t know about COVID-19, about how long we would be at home, and how we would all manage. And I was also incredibly moved that a student paused our discussion to check on me.

In truth, all I could say was that I was not ok, but that I was certain I was going to be ok, and I promised that if there was anything they could do to support me, I would ask. They promised the same, and we came through. Those students learned so much more than the real analysis that the syllabus promised.

Who inspires you and why?

I feel quite lucky to say that the list of people who inspire me is long, and I am thankful to have had so many people who have shown me kindness, grace, and generosity. Given our current circumstances, though, I have to say that I am most inspired by my three boys. This has been a tremendously difficult year, and they have shown resilience and adaptability that makes me proud to be their Mama. At 8, 10, and 13, they regularly surprise me with their humor, creativity, and empathy, despite the challenges of distance learning and social isolation. Together, we work on bringing “nuggets of joy” into each day.

What are you most looking forward to out of your new position as Project NExT associate director?

I think I’m most excited to learn how I can contribute to Project NExT as an organization, and how my skills and strengths can best be utilized to help the Fellows grow as educators and members of the field. I am looking forward to meeting new people and joining the NExT community in a new capacity, and to sharing my work in educator instructional change with new Fellows. I bring a lot of energy to the room, and having been at home for a year, I’m eager to connect with others. It is exciting to be working on a large, national program, and to broaden my impacts, but I also expect to learn so much from my colleagues and the Fellows, and I am very much looking forward to that.

MAA is proud to have members like Stephanie Salomone, whose commitment to both her students and to positive educational change continually inspires us in our mission of advancing mathematical understanding in our world. We are excited to welcome her back in a new capacity as associate director of Project NExT and look forward to working with her in growing the program.