Math is such a broad discipline of study that you might expect there to be numerous specific degree paths within this field. After all, the field of science includes degree programs in biology, chemistry and physics but also biochemistry, microbiology, zoology, astronomy and astrophysics. However, most degree programs in mathematics are general in nature. In the area of education, specifically, math programs usually focus on a set of grade levels. Graduate mathematics programs outside of education usually focus on either abstract or applied mathematics.
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Degree Options in Math Education
Most math education degree programs focus on teaching mathematics at either the elementary school or secondary school level. Often, these distinctions are addressed as concentrations or specializations within a general math education degree program, rather than as two separate master’s programs.
Whether you are teaching math in first grade or in twelfth grade, you need specific knowledge of the content area and of how to teach in ways that match the learning styles of your age group. The differences are the focus of your content area – teaching the fundamentals of mathematics for elementary grades as opposed to teaching concepts and strategies of high-level math subjects at the high school levels – and the teaching, learning and classroom management strategies that work with pupils at different levels of development. All students of mathematics education are likely to take classes in certain key areas, such as learning and instruction, child or adolescent development, math education research, remedial math instruction and teaching problem-solving strategies in mathematics.
Students pursuing a concentration in elementary mathematics education often take classes geared toward teaching at the elementary and middle school levels. Coursework in patterns and functions, number theory, logic and logical games, probability and statistics, discrete math, algebra and geometry are common. Although these subjects may sound advanced, the emphasis in a program for elementary school teachers is on how to teach grade-level-appropriate concepts and strategies to students in the grade levels of preschool and kindergarten up to fifth or even eighth grade. Although topics like number systems and basic mathematical operations may seem simple to adult students, mastering the art of teaching these concepts to the youngest of school-aged children can be challenging.
In a concentration in secondary mathematics education, students are likely to study methods of teaching more advanced math topics. Some of the course titles are similar to those of elementary math teaching students – algebra, geometry and probability and statistics, for example – but are designed to meet the needs of high school math teachers. Other classes, like pre-calculus or calculus, are unique to secondary grade level studies.
Some math education programs prepare you for different careers, such as supervisory roles in mathematics education and college professor of education or mathematics. If you have an interest in these jobs, look for a program with relevant specializations.
“Pure” and Applied Mathematics Programs
Beyond degrees in math education, most master’s degree programs in mathematics are classified as either abstract or “pure” mathematics degrees – sometimes listed as simply “mathematics degrees” – or as applied mathematics degrees. The differences between a master’s degree in pure mathematics and one in abstract mathematics can be considerable, and in many schools, these are two completely separate degree programs rather than concentration options within a single program of study.
The difference between degrees in pure and applied mathematics is one of research focus as well as curriculum. Students of pure mathematics take some core coursework in each of the major math subjects, such as algebra and geometry, and they focus most of their coursework and research on math theory. An applied mathematics course is often more interdisciplinary, using mathematical modeling and methods of numerical and statistical analysis to address topics in science and engineering. Because of its numerous applications and its focus on mathematical analysis of data from a range of fields, applied mathematics is sometimes referred to as industrial mathematics or computational mathematics.
Either a pure mathematics or applied mathematics degree can help prepare students for a career as a mathematician, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, neither will fully prepare you for a job as a math teacher – at least, not without further training and certification.
Master’s degrees in specific subjects, like calculus or geometry, are rare. Even if you are not able to earn a master’s degree in algebra, you can choose a cluster of elective algebra courses, such as linear algebra, abstract algebra and special topics in algebra.