It all adds up for math professor

The time had come to make a choice.

Thomasenia Lott – an 18-year-old student from a small town known for its chicken farms, daughter of an illiterate father and a mother who graduated from high school at the age of 35 – spent the first two weeks of college hiding in her dormitory room. Where do I go? What do I do? Do I even belong here? “I didn’t have a clue,” she recalls.

Finally, her roommate compelled her to make a choice.

“I’ll get you kicked out of here if you don’t figure it out,” the roommate said. She urged Thomasenia to see a tough-love mathematics professor known for propelling freshmen into action.

And so the choice: Return to the chicken farms and textile factories and a life of physical labor that already had carved a lifelong callous into her right middle finger – or register for the professor’s math class. Thomasenia registered for the class.

“Lo and behold,” she recalls, “I found something I could love.”

Four years later, she graduated magna cum laude from South Carolina State College with a bachelor’s in mathematics and computer science.

It was the first step on a ladder of higher education that has lifted Adams to renown in her field, to a professorship at the University of Florida’s College of Education and to a key role at the Lastinger Center for Learning.

Adams oversees an ambitious extension of the center’s elementary school Florida Master Teacher Initiative to middle schools and high schools. Working in concert with the Helios Education Foundation, she’s enlisted dozens of Pinellas County secondary school teachers into the Master Teacher program.

This version of the program features a special concentration on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Adams’ passion and specialty. This is crucial at a time when test data show that many students in Florida are failing to make progress in math and science.

“The word ‘center’ of the Lastinger Center’s name is very appropriate because the place where we carry out the goals of organization is at the center of education – the classroom,” Adams says. “This allows us to be a type of ‘first responder’ and to be proactive in developing and pushing forward educational innovations.”

The center’s STEM program serves as a prime example of those innovations.

“The Lastinger Center is at the forefront of designing a mathematics and science professional development program that is responsive to the particular needs of the teachers and that will provide opportunities and capacity for mathematics and science teachers to become leaders and master teachers,” says Adams, who recently graduated from a national leadership institute, the Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) Institute for Women in Higher Education.

The ultimate objective: to improve student performance in math and science, helping to assure their long-term success and enhance Florida’s economic future.

“I still see too many children who are not achieving in mathematics and science, and that is very disturbing,” Adams says. “Mathematics is the gateway to a lot of other disciplines – to accounting, to science, to engineering. It’s impossible to operate in those fields without mathematical literacy.”

She knows this well. Math also proved the gateway to success for Adams, an outcome that seemed rather unlikely in 1983, when she graduated from high school in Saluda, S.C., a hard-scrabble town of 3,000 people. She was the youngest of eight children. Her father, who left school after the third grade, worked in the chicken farms and on highway crews; her mother worked on the farms and in a hosiery factory.

Consequently, her parents learned the value of education. This was particularly true of her mother, who found a way to return to school as an adult and finally earn a high school diploma.

“They always said, ‘What you put in your head, no one can take away from you,’ ” says Adams, who recently received research funding from the National Science Foundation.
“They always wanted us to know more than they did and to have more than they had.”

After high school, she knocked around town a bit, working on the farms and elsewhere, but was forced to make a choice.

“I either had to go to the military or go to college because my parents wouldn’t have it any other way,” she recalls. “It was not going to be the chicken farm for me. I had to leave home to go to something better.”

To this day, Adams acknowledges this pattern of being compelled to make a choice. A prominent place on the wall of her office at the center is occupied by this observation from writer Iyanla Vanzant: “There are three ways by which we learn. We learn by choice. We learn by force. We learn by being forced to make a choice.”

“Being forced to make a choice,” Adams says, “that’s how I ended up being in mathematics.”

UF education doctoral student Joanne Laframenta credits Adams with giving her the tools and support to become a researcher.

“Dr. Adams has always emboldened her students to follow their own path, to pursue their own research interests, and to nourish the budding researcher within us,” Laframenta says. “The academic professional that I am today is a result of this intensive and caring nurturing.”

At the same time, Adams continues her own research. She spends a great deal of time in the field, working with teachers and students to improve math instruction. Toward that end, she recently co-authored the “GO Math! Florida” elementary school textbook, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and adopted by many Florida school districts.

“Thomasenia Adams is a highly respected math education professor and she is a published author of curricula,” Lastinger Center Director Don Pemberton says. “She has the central gravitas that is so important to our program.”

Adams’ specialty: multiculturalism and the teaching and learning of mathematics.

“Mathematics is cultural in that it’s a result of people’s need to solve problems,” she says. “Even things like keeping score – the complexity of keeping score in baseball and tennis and football, all of those things are very mathematical. Doctors use mathematics, and teachers and carpenters and artists.”

Having gone on to earn a master’s and a Ph.D. in education, now married and the mother of three children, Adams is working with the center to inspire and educate others through the secondary school STEM version of the on-the-job Master Teacher program.

“Everything you’ve heard about the program in elementary schools we’re trying to replicate in middle and high schools,” Adams says. “We’re working to develop the same kind of effective program we have in the elementary schools.

“I’m very appreciative because I’m able to be a part of this and work at the ground level as we develop it,” she says. “I’m here making it happen from the very beginning and that’s a neat place to be. Professors don’t often have the opportunity to be a part of the roots of a project as wonderful as this one.”