Math, science education professor uses $155K grant...

Math, science education professor uses $155K grant to improve STEM education 

Jennifer Kaplan, director of Middle Tennessee State University’s Mathematics and Science Education Ph.D. Program, recently landed a $154,929 grant from the National Science Foundation for her research to develop innovative assessments that analyze student thinking in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, and, in turn, train STEM instructors to improve student learning. (MTSU graphic illustration by Stephanie Wagner)

A Middle Tennessee State University professor passionate about science, technology, engineering and math education recently earned her fourth National Science Foundation grant to research student thinking in STEM and train STEM instructors to improve student learning. 

Jennifer Kaplan, director of MTSU’s Mathematics and Science Education Ph.D. Program, landed $154,929 in funding from the NSF to develop innovative assessments that analyze how undergraduate students use “interdisciplinary thinking” — using both a scientific and mathematical thinking — to understand scientific topics. 

“In other words, how students engage in making sense of quantitative problems in biology, chemistry and physics,” said Kaplan, who is also a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences. “Mathematical sensemaking in science focuses on students’ ability to blend core disciplinary science ideas with cross-cutting mathematical concepts, such as patterns and proportions, while engaging in scientific practices such as computational thinking, making predictions and reasoning from evidence.”

Department of Mathematical Sciences logo

Kaplan said since STEM fields are so interrelated, it is critical that students can integrate these different modes of thinking to solve problems and achieve what is known as “three-dimensional” learning. 

“These assessments will reveal much more about student thinking than any assessments currently in use and will be essential in designing high-quality instruction that fosters mathematical sensemaking in science,” said Kaplan, who added the project will also provide professional development to instructors. “Findings from this project should help inform teaching practice in undergraduate STEM courses and help students foster computational thinking skills.”

Kaplan, who grew up in Massachusetts, spent 10 years as an accomplished high school mathematics teacher herself before deciding to pursue a Ph.D. and dive into STEM-education research, with a primary focus on statistics education. In addition to this recent grant, she has earned more than $943,000 from the NSF for her work as both a principal and co-principal investigator on three other projects. 

Kaplan said MTSU’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs gave her support during the submission phase of the grant. 

“I worked with Keith Palmer and Janie Becker in that office, both of whom were great,” she said. “At the time of submission, Dawn McCormack was the acting head of the ORSP, and she was also instrumental in helping complete the submission.”

Ying Jin
Ying Jin

Kaplan also worked with Ying Jin, associate professor of quantitative psychology and director of C-MEASURE, who served as an external evaluator to the project. C-MEASURE acts as an in-house consulting service to promote and facilitate research activities for MTSU faculty, staff and graduate students. 

“I have worked on projects where we have had to find external evaluators and have served as an external evaluator,” Kaplan said. ‘Having this unit on campus provides strong service to the research mission of the university.”

Jin said having this collaboration with colleagues on research can be extremely valuable. 

“This type of collaboration offered through C-MEASURE allows for the pooling of knowledge and resources, opportunities for learning and professional growth as well as networking and building relationships within one’s field,” Jin said. “Jennifer has been extremely helpful in providing insights and resources to help me with developing an evaluation plan for this project.”

Kaplan said she feels extremely satisfied her work as Mathematics and Science Education program director — mentoring young researchers and helping them grow into independent scholars — and hopes to continue her research into best practices for STEM education going forward.

To learn more about the support at MTSU’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, visit the website at

To learn more about the research support available through C-MEASURE, visit the website at

To learn more about the Mathematics and Science Ph.D. Program, visit the website at

— Stephanie Wagner (