School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

Cups, Computers and Calculus at Virginia Tech

Large plastic drinking cups have always played a pivotal role in college life, but up until now that role mostly involved the consumption of cheap keg beer. But the math department at Virginia Tech has developed an entirely new use for these cups – and for an abandoned department store – all in the name of providing better math instruction to more students at a lower cost.

It’s called the Math Emporium, and according to Daniel de Vise of The Washington Post, it’s a place where “computer is king” and math course pass rates are rising.

Faced with massive overcrowding in required freshman math courses such as pre-calculus, calculus, trigonometry and geometry, Virginia Tech University decided to try something new. They renovated an old department store for $2 million, converting it to 60,000 square feet of teaching space with 537 computers arranged in six-person clusters. According to De Vise, there are no professors in the classroom – just a “sea of computers,” red plastic cups and four roving instructors. Students work at their own pace using a mastery-based program; when they need human help students place a red (beverage-free) cup on top of their computer monitor. That cup signals a math instructor to provide in-person assistance.

De Vise writes that Math Emporium is open 24 hours a day, offering seven courses with 200 to 2,000 students enrolled. Instead of the traditional model of 100 or so instructors teaching hundreds of class sections, a staff of 12 rotates the lab and provides instructional help to any student who needs it. De Vise reports that the lab serves 5,000 students in the fall, and 3,000 in the spring. This frees up precious classroom space for other courses using the more traditional approach of instructor or professor-led instruction and discussion.

The results so far are promising. Virginia Tech is saving money. De Vise reports the model cuts per-student expenses by one-third, and pass rates for those introductory math courses are higher now than 15 years ago.

Since its creation in 1997, the Math Emporium model has popped up at the Universities of Alabama and Idaho, and Louisiana State University.

Peter Haskell, math department chair at Virginia Tech, recognizes the inevitability of this new chapter in higher education given the game-changing nature of computers and technology. Says Haskell:

How could computers not change mathematics? How could they not change higher education? They’ve changed everything else.

My Take: Virginia Tech’s approach is in keeping with its stated mission to “Invent the Future.” While many initially were skeptical, De Vise reports that students now seem happy with the quality of their instruction. It appears to be a good match for certain types of courses and subjects where mastery depends mostly on practice. I liked this analysis from the senior instructor who runs the Emporium, Terri Bourdon: “You don’t have to have the big staff we have. You just have to have the philosophy that we have, which is that you learn math by doing math.” While this model won’t work in other types of courses or subject areas, it resolves a pressing need for large universities faced with overcrowded math classes.

Beth T. Sigall

April 25, 2012

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