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Colby-Sawyer College Receives National Science Foundation Grant to Integrate Math, Analytical Skills into Liberal Arts Curriculum

NEW LONDON, N.H. – Colby-Sawyer College has received a three-year $149,290 grant from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement program to incorporate the teaching of basic math and reasoning skills across its liberal arts curriculum.

The NSF received more than 900 proposals for its program, and, following a rigorous peer review process, awarded approximately $12 million to 100 applicants, including Colby-Sawyer.

Colby-Sawyer's “Quantitative Literacy across the Curriculum in a Liberal Arts Setting” project seeks to strengthen students' ability to routinely use basic mathematical concepts and skills that are critical in today's information-centered world. It is designed to ensure that educated citizens are able to efficiently gather and analyze information and use it to make well-reasoned decisions in their future careers and personal lives.

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Semra Kilic-Bahi, the project's principle investigator, says that while quantitative literacy can be introduced in math and statistics courses, their relevance in other fields must be continually demonstrated and reinforced for the use of these skills to become habitual.

"Our collaborative liberal arts culture provides us with a unique opportunity to use and reinforce these skills in a variety of sophisticated contexts across the college," Professor Kilic-Bahi says. "The development of educated, healthy skepticism in evaluating information is an important component of this project."

The project could serve as an excellent model for teaching quantitative literacy at other liberal arts institutions in higher education, according to Elizabeth Teles, NSF grant program official.

“Quantitative literacy offers a quantitative habit of mind that can be applied in nearly any discipline and responds to a lack of relevance that students often see in traditional mathematics courses,” Teles wrote in the NSF review. “The project has a clear student focus with opportunities for students to advance their quantitative literacy skills through newly designed mathematics courses, liberal education courses and major courses.”

A Need in the Information Age

In an increasingly complex global society, many college students lack fundamental math, reasoning and analytical skills, according to the NSF review. The review states that “this initiative promotes an effective quantitative literacy program that prepares college graduates for their professional and personal lives and responds to a national call for an increased understanding of mathematics as the language of science.”

The grant will enable Colby-Sawyer to become a leader in developing student-centered experiences in quantitative reasoning and provide an exceptional opportunity to generate an interest in science, technology and mathematics, according to Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculty Deborah Taylor.

“We've had great success in developing our writing-across-the-college program, and we will use that model to help our students develop proficiency with quantitative reasoning across the liberal education program and in their majors. These are important life skills for every liberally-educated person, not just those who choose to major in the sciences,” Vice President Taylor says.

A cross-disciplinary team of Colby-Sawyer educators will lead the project's development and implementation from March 2007 through February 2010. These faculty members include the principle investigator, Professor Kilic-Bahi, and co-investigators John Callewaert, director of the Institute for Community and the Environment, Ben Steele, professor and chair of the Natural Sciences Department, Lynn Garrioch, assistant professor of psychology, and Randy Hanson, professor of history.

Creating a New Curriculum

Colby-Sawyer students and faculty will be involved in the development and implementation of the curriculum-wide quantitative literacy (QL) program. The program will recognize students' current level of math preparation and their career ambitions. It will also assist faculty members in understanding the value and importance of quantitative literacy and the effective teaching of these skills through their course offerings.

“We will promote quantitative literacy as a collective, across-the-college issue and responsibility,” Professor Ben Steele says. “The program will provide our faculty with classroom materials that they can implement and assess across the academic disciplines.”

By increasing mathematical content across the curriculum, the QL initiative will strengthen the college's Liberal Education Program, which currently requires one course in mathematics and does not offer an academic major or minor in mathematics. The college will also ensure the sustainability of quantitative literacy components across the liberal arts curriculum, according to Academic Dean Joe Carroll.

Professor Callewaert, who directs the college's Community and Environmental Studies Program, hopes that quantitative literacy skills will help his students develop a better understanding of the math behind the maps they create with geographic information systems and other visual displays of data.

“For example, what does it mean if a map shows a 10 percent increase in population in New Hampshire and a 10 percent decline in forest cover over the last decade? Students should be confident enough with math and quantitative analysis so these problems won't intimidate them,” Professor Callewaert says. “More generally, we'd like to improve students' quantitative reasoning skills so they can more critically assess information in their lives as they read the paper, consider financial options such as loans and savings, or make purchasing decisions.”

Professor Lynn Garrioch, who teaches upper-level courses in Forensic Psychology and Psychology and the Law, explains that researchers and professionals in these fields rely heavily on quantitative research methods and reasoning to investigate crime and to understand the processes of the legal system.

“It's important for my students to engage with course material in a variety of ways, including understanding and solving complex real-world programs with basic mathematical tools,” she says. “Basic algebraic knowledge and skills such as using spreadsheets and developing analytic arguments and reasoning that students develop in these courses can be applied to other courses and also to their personal lives.”

Tools for Daily Life

Students with strong quantitative literacy skills are better equipped to deal with and resolve daily issues and complex problems and make sense of the world around them, according to Professor Randy Hanson, who directs the college's History, Society and Culture major and Liberal Education Program. The issues range widely, from the ability to follow IRS guidelines and evaluate marketing claims to understanding the historical trends and data behind climate change.

What are the issues threatening our social security system and causing health insurance costs to rise dramatically? How should informed citizens think about immigration policies, given our country's history and recent demographic trends? All of these serious questions require a level of quantitative literacy for a fuller understanding and appreciation, Professor Hanson maintains.

The groundwork for this quantiative literacy initiative began in spring 2004, when Colby-Sawyer faculty from many disciplines attended conferences and conducted research into quantitative literacy. In addition to the work of the project investigators, Natural Sciences Professors Cheryl Coolidge and Bill Thomas gave mini-courses and presentations, and faculty members Shari Goldberg (nursing), Jody Murphy and Beth Crockford (business administration), Maryann Allen (natural sciences), Joe Carroll (sociology) and Hester Fuller (communication studies) attended QL workshops and developed classroom materials.

Colby-Sawyer will make its quantitative literacy program research and teaching materials available to other academic institutions through conference presentations and publications, as well as by posting information on existing Web sites for the Washington Center Curricular Initiatives and the Center for Mathematics and Quantitative Education at Dartmouth College.

To learn more about the Colby-Sawyer College quantitative literacy project, contact Professor Kilic-Bahi at skilic-bahi@colby-sawyer.edu.

-Kimberly Swick Slover

NSF Information

Partial support for this project was provided by the National Science Foundation's Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program under award #0633133. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Colby-Sawyer, founded in 1837, is a comprehensive liberal arts college located in the scenic Lake Sunapee Region of central New Hampshire. Our students learn in small classes through a select array of programs that integrate the liberal arts and sciences with pre-professional experience.

Colby-Sawyer College, 541 Main Street, New London, N.H. 03257 (603) 526-3000