Transforming math, transforming people: Lois Samer’s legacy at CSU

Lois Samer portrait
Lois Samer

When Bob Gaines hired Lois Samer to be the assistant director of the Math Module System at Colorado State University in 1982, he asked, “Will you stay five years?”

Samer replied, “Yeah, I think so …”

Now, after 38 years at CSU, Samer has retired as the co-director of the Paced Algebra to Calculus Electronically (PACe) program. While she spent her career developing the essential framework that made PACe so successful over the past four decades, Samer knows that what made her time at CSU so special wasn’t the math, it was the people.

“Over time I have worked with some incredible people who have been unbelievably dedicated to trying to create the very best instruction that we could, recognizing that we’re dealing with a large population and a very heterogenous population who are coming to us from lots of different backgrounds, from lots of different innate interests in mathematics, and with different needs,” said Samer.

Samer and her small team not only managed to transform the basic foundation of precalculus education at CSU, but she also, almost singlehandedly, interacted with every individual student who came into the PACe Center looking to complain, seeking guidance, or needing help.

“I’m really proud of how I’ve interacted with and helped many individual students, many of whom were facing more challenges than any young adult should ever have to face,” she said. “We have so many students, and we have students with unbelievably intense personal situations. And they tear at your heart. I’m really proud of how I’ve been able to work with some of those students and do whatever I could to help them.”

In her time at CSU, Samer accurately issued more than 250,000 final grades to students enrolled in precalculus mathematics courses.

“Lois had a real amazing talent of approaching each student as an individual, researching their specific circumstances and what led them to what question they were asking or what complaint they were raising,” said Steve Benoit, a special assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics. “She was able to have very calm and level-headed conversations with students during what often were times of frustration. She provided an incredible, invaluable service to CSU that will be difficult to replace.”

Samer created the structure for the PACe program from nothing, designing a resilient system with just a paper and pencil.

“What Lois achieved during her time here is amazing,” said Benoit. “Building a managed precalculus system from nothing … and the system that she built is largely the system that we use now. To build something out of nothing and have it last three decades is pretty amazing. Even outside of work, she was focused on what she could do to help the students and the university. She was very dedicated, and that’s pretty inspirational.”

Uniquely qualified

Samer completed her Bachelor of Science degree with honors in biology at Bucknell University in May 1976 and a Master of Science in molecular biology at Purdue University in December 1977. After graduating, she remained with the biology department at Purdue, where she was mentored by Robert Hurst and Samuel Postlethwaite, internationally recognized as the “fathers” of audio-tutorial instruction. The students in this program were primarily taught with lectures played off of cassette tapes.

“Sam always used to say, ‘Learning must be done by the learner,’ and that’s so true,” said Samer.

Samer’s experience with internationally recognized leaders in the world of audio-tutorials and nontraditional teaching methods made her uniquely qualified to join the Math Module team at CSU in 1982. The team was ready for some new blood and needed some foundational changes.

At the time, Samer was one of only a handful of people so experienced in these methods, both as a student and as a teacher.

An evolving program

Samer joined the Math Module team when it was still in its infancy. When the program first started in 1975, it was entirely paper-based, and the technology available was slow and laborious to use. Despite well-intentioned beginnings, cheating during the program was rampant, and it was difficult to properly maintain records and return grades in a timely manner.

“When we first took over, the Math Module System didn’t have an especially good reputation,” said Samer. “Philosophically, however, I believe that its structure was pedagogically sound.”

The philosophy of the original program has remained unchanged since 1975.

“You’ve got the smaller grouping of material into courses with specific instructional objectives,” said Samer. “There’s always been printed resources available, there have always been supplemental recorded short lectures, we have always had walk-in tutoring support, we’ve always had exam materials with complete solutions and we had optional live lectures up until the last 10 years.”

The program is mastery-based, meaning students have to reach a minimum level of proficiency before moving on to the next step. There has always been virtually unlimited testing and retesting, so students have many opportunities to learn the material and pass. The grading scale is non-punitive, so even if they do not pass initially, their GPA will remain unaffected.

The program has always been focused on promoting student success, but Samer and her colleagues had to do a lot of work to make that clear to the student body.

“When Ken (Klopfenstein, former co-director) and I started, we had a lot of public relations work to do. We did everything we could think of to let people know that we cared, that we were listening, that we wanted them to succeed, and that you don’t have to do it by yourself,” she said.

By 1989, computing technology had moved to desktop computers and the Math Module System became the Individualized Math Program. The team could save data on 5 ¼ in. floppy disks, which allowed for more organization in the system.

New technology, new name

In 2005 the program had evolved enough to adopt another new name, PACe. It had moved almost entirely online at this point, but foundationally remained relatively the same.

With the advance of technology, the PACe program has been able to offer more and more resources.

“There’s something new practically every semester!” said Samer. “We can give far more detailed and immediate feedback to the students in this iteration of the program. We can help ensure that students are prepared before they go to take their proctored exam.”

The PACe program serves about 3,000 students each semester, and it is no small feat to have created a system that not only can handle that volume of students, but is organized, dedicated and centered around foundational education. The success of the program was aided by improvements in technology, but at its core are Samer’s years of dedication and service to making it the best that it could be.

“I cannot begin to tell you how much effort has gone in to the creation of every bit of this program from its inception,” she said. “We care deeply about the quality of instruction we provide. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. Will there always be room for improvement? Yes. But one of the things that I’m really proud of is that that basic design has never been changed. We have made some additions to it, but we have been able to easily accommodate anything that has cropped up, and this design has been in use now for a little bit over 30 years. I’m proud of that.”

A profound legacy

One of the most profound aspects of Samer’s legacy is the flexibility and adaptability that she infused into the precalculus program. This inherent desire to look to the future is what allowed the program to be so successful and to evolve alongside the technological landscape.

The PACe program is currently undergoing another name change and a renovation of the testing and tutoring space. The curriculum, too, is set to evolve with the introduction of better technologies.

Aside from the immense benefits provided to the university by the PACe program and its future-focused design, everyone agrees that Samer’s biggest legacy is this:

“How much she cared,” said Anita Pattison, associate director of the PACe Center. “She cared about her students, she cared about the program, she cared about her staff, and she wanted to make sure that everybody was able to succeed.”

“Lois is a really compassionate individual,” said Ken McLaughlin, chair of the Department if Mathematics. “She really tried to help as many people as she could, and she created a system that allowed her to do that.”