As a mathematics educator, Ruthmae Sears has a true flair for problem solving. Her work extends far beyond using formulas and finding solutions to abstract mathematical problems. Using mathematical reasoning to examine social disparities such as poverty, literacy and structural racism, Sears develops community-centric solutions. Her work emphasizes inclusivity in all spaces, stemming from her belief that schools are microcosms of a community.
“I've always looked at education from a holistic viewpoint,” said Sears, associate professor of mathematics education in the USF College of Education and associate director for the Coalition for Science Literacy. “We have to be committed to the whole person because it's the whole person we're trying to develop so that way they can appreciate the beauty of mathematics but also be positive agents of change within their community.”
Sears’s collaborative projects are thriving. Her research has had such a profound impact that the American Association for the Advancement of Science has recognized Sears as a AAAS Fellow – one of the world's most prestigious honors for academic research. She is co-chair of the Accelerating Systemic Change in STEM Higher Education working group focusing on equity, inclusion and social justice. Additionally, Sears works with the NSF-funded Systemic Transformation of Education through Evidence-Based Reforms (STEER) leadership team, the Center for PAInT on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus to support arts integration in STEM and facilitates Mathematics Power Hour, a collaboration between USF, Hillsborough County Public Schools and Texas Instruments. Through her involvement in the community, Sears promotes hope and inspires her community to develop solutions together.
At USF, Sears works with colleagues to address disparities and has a knack for galvanizing the community across the three campuses. In 2020, she helped design various faculty and staff training opportunities, such as the Enlightenment Workshop Series, which fosters cultural competence with more than 700 members of the university community.
“It was so important that we had the voices of faculty and staff across this institution who were willing to engage in courageous conversations and participate. It highlighted that our community has people who have a zeal for knowledge and a strong desire to make USF better and promote inclusive excellence,” Sears said.
In 2021, Sears and her colleagues were commissioned by the city of St. Petersburg to develop recommendations on how it can address systemic racism. Sears also facilitated the NFL Huddle for Change, a six-part discussion series on racial inequalities in physical and mental health, which was hosted by a partnership between the Super Bowl LV Host Committee, NFL Inspire Change, Community Tampa Bay and USF. Sears also co-led the Muma College of Business’s I’m Speaking Series, which explored how anti-racism and gender equity intersect in the workplace.
“We need to find solutions that can really improve the quality of life within our communities, such that everyone can thrive,” Sears said.
As an educator, Sears thinks a lot about curriculum and about what is taken for granted, such as the implication of students’ literacy levels on their mathematical performance, and the implications of how textbooks can be used to support learning. It’s a position she first confronted after excitedly spending a summer preparing lecture materials to teach her first trigonometry class in her native country, the Bahamas, and she was stunned to learn that her secondary school students couldn’t read.
“I saw the look of deer in the headlights when I asked students to read the problem that applied aspects of trigonometry to the real world,” Sears now refers to this as the “big moment” when she realized the importance of addressing disparities and the need to support students learning to read the language of mathematics. Since her first year of teaching, she’s collaborated with interdisciplinary peers to build new strategies that would help students succeed. Sears quickly revised her lesson materials with basic reading assignments and by the end of the school year, her students’ mathematical achievement scores significantly improved.
Realizing that everyone comes from different spaces and with different experiences, Sears embraced community support from the start of her career, including getting her church to provide students from low-income families with free mathematics and English tutoring classes, and organizing small business owners to work with female high school students to improve their social skills. Sears also worked with the PACE Foundation in the Bahamas to build a school for teen mothers and enhance its curriculum. Sears acknowledged that her students needed a holistic support system that would help them succeed in math and reading.
Sears’s vision of addressing the challenges faced by students by creating sustainable support systems is a main factor in her work in and out of the classroom. By extension, she is also interested in the well-being of teachers. Sears is acutely aware of how the challenges that teachers face contribute to the national teacher shortage. Sears’s hope is that if teachers are better informed about their students and are also aware of how their own experiences may influence their curriculum, they can thrive in their careers.
“If we're serious about systemic change initiatives, we have to really reflect on all aspects of the system and consider factors that alter or transform it,” Sears said. “It's an ecosystem.”