Math Professor Receives Statewide Teaching Awards

Sarah Leone, assistant professor of mathematics at Middlesex Community College, celebrates everything, including making mistakes, taking risks, and doing things outside our comfort zone.

Sarah LeoneThis year, Middlesex Community College and the Connecticut Board of Regents (BOR) is celebrating Professor Leone.

In Fall 2022, Professor Leone was nominated for the 2022–23 BOR Faculty Awards through a collaboration between Middlesex faculty and Interim Dean of Academic and Student Affairs Donna Bontatibus, Ph.D. These awards recognize Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) faculty for excellence in teaching or research at each campus and system-wide.

In May 2023, the BOR announced that Professor Leone was named the recipient of the Campus-based Board of Regents Teaching Award for Middlesex and also the System-Wide Board of Regents Teaching Award for Connecticut Community Colleges.

“Professor Leone has demonstrated innovation in delivering math curriculum to students. She is student-centered and provides active engagement within her classes,” said Dr. Bontatibus.

When asked about how she does this, Professor Leone said. “It’s the everyday small things that build community and trust in the class. Nothing is too small to celebrate, in my opinion.”

She attempts to make each class engaging for all learners by asking prompting questions all throughout the lesson and mixing up the way she presents material. Each moment in class is orchestrated to get students thinking about making connections to mathematics and to each other.

One way Professor Leone does this is by putting students in random groups, so they eventually work with everyone in the class. She will often greet students at the beginning of class with an online poll asking about the highlights of their weekend or something they are proud of in that week. She said this helps them collaborate, laugh, and build trust with all their classmates.

“I often start a new topic with students in their groups beginning with a very open-ended problem to start to discover what they know about this new topic and what we still need to figure out. This kind of anchors the whole unit,” she explained.

“I always try to relate the new topics we are learning to concepts they already know, so they can see that they know so much more than they think they do. I try to stress to my students that struggling is not only OK, but it’s good and necessary. Without struggle, change doesn’t happen…just like exercising.”

Professor Leone loves being in the classroom and getting to know her students and their life experiences. “It’s most rewarding watching them view mathematics differently by talking with each other,” she said.

She is an advocate for growth versus a fixed mindset in her teaching. Psychologists’ research suggests that people with fixed mindset feel their abilities cannot be changed, and those with a growth mindset believe that with effort, they can learn new things.

“Having the students trust me and each other and take chances helps build community. I let them know it’s fine to take risks,” she said. “Years later, they may not remember a math formula, but they remember to believe in themselves and that they can do anything.”

The Math Department professors, including Professor Leone, have piloted courses and made adjustments to teaching within Open Educational Resources (OER), a program that advocates free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning and research.

“We all work together to support each other,” said Professor Leone, who is also involved in the Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges of Connecticut, also known as MATYCONN. The organization conducts a statewide math contest each year and awards scholarships to the student winners. Professor Leone also serves on the Center for Teaching Steering Committee and Accessibility Council.

Prior to joining the Math Department at Middlesex in 2005, Professor Leone taught math at Nathan Hale High School in East Haddam and The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury. Her Middlesex courses include College Algebra, Statistics, and College Career Success. She received a bachelor of science from SUNY Albany and a master’s degree from Central Connecticut State University.

Professor Leone enjoys giving back to the community and helping people. Her favorite community service activity the college sponsors each year is the Middletown Thanksgiving Project, which she loves to do with her students. She also volunteers at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Old Lyme.

June 2023