[Fresh] Math Center Interview

Kelly Eastland (kelly.eastland@villanova.edu)
Tue, 09 Nov 2004 15:17:57 -0500

Fresh@News. We understand that almost all of our first
year students take a math course. What is the purpose of
that?

Dr. Douglas Norton, Chair, Department of Mathematical
Sciences. Actually we have a wide variety of math courses
for our first year students, and we try to match the first
year math course to the needs of the student. Many of our
social science students will be taking a course called
discrete math where they will study things like voting
systems (hanging chads, however, are not covered). Since
mathematics is really the language of Engineering and the
Physical Sciences (Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy), most
of those students are taking a first-year calculus course
that meets their needs. We have an entirely different
program for our Biology students; many of the problems will
deal with issues such as populations of bacteria, and those
students will also gain the statistical skills that they
will need for their laboratory work; and we have a different
health-related math course for the Nursing students.

Fresh@News. We've heard a bit about some of the projects
the business students are doing in their math classes. Can
you say a bit more about what they do?

DN. Some of our professors developed an innovative
approach to teaching mathematics in the business context.
They wrote a book about what we do here at Villanova, and
now a number of other business schools are using our
methods. We try to teach the students how to gather data,
develop an analysis of that data, and then use their
analysis as a way to help them maximize or minimize certain
related variables. Eventually, of course, we assume that
they will want to minimize their costs and maximize their
profits, but we start with more familiar aspects of life.
One project has to do with gathering data on how much sleep
the students get. (Just as a side note to parents, my
suggestion -- as a parent of a college student myself is
not to press for too much detail on this aspect of the
project!) Then we ask the students to measure other
variables such as their energy level at different times of
the day. The next task is to find a mathematical
relationship. While this sounds simple enough to describe,
it involves some complex mathematics, of just the type that
students will eventually use in a lot of business
applications. We have another project that involves
shooting baskets, and developing mathematical relationships
around that. Parents will be relieved to know that the
students do their research on the basket shooting project
outside of class. We do see a few students trying to do the
sleep research in class, but we try to discourage that.
Some of these projects might sound a little silly, but we
find that they are very effective in teaching business math
skills.

Fresh@News. What about math anxiety? Some of the folks
here on the Fresh@News staff say that they had terrible math
anxiety when they were students.

DN. This is an issue that my colleagues and I think about
all of the time. I always ask my own first-year students
if they have any concerns about taking a math course. I
sometimes hear some heartbreaking stories of female students
who were told, "You are a girl, you shouldn't take this math
course, it will be too hard for you," or of a boy who was
told, "You'll never get this, take an English course
instead." After awhile, some students start to internalize
this, and they tell themselves "I'm no good at math."
Unfortunately, our culture supports this kind of thinking.
There are plenty of people in our society who have trouble
reading, but you'll rarely hear anyone admit that in
public. But many people will say, with a certain amount of
pride, "I can't do math. I can't even balance my
checkbook." Actually our colleagues from other countries
tell us that this is rather a distinctively American
thing. Unfortunately, this eventually translates into a
fear of math in some students, and a conviction that they
can't really do the work.

Fresh@News. So what do we do for those students who are
afraid of math?

DN. Villanova students are bright and hard working, and
they can, in fact, do a great job in their math courses. It
is normal for students to struggle with some math issues,
but most of our professors are very sympathetic to student
concerns, and are happy to work with students outside of
class. Another great thing we have is the Mathematics
Learning and Research Center (MLRC); most of the students
just call this the "math center".

Fresh@news. Tell us a bit about the MLRC.

DN. If you go there, what you will see is a room with big
tables, staffed by students who have strong math skills
themselves and who have been trained to know how to help
other students. Some students will make an appointment for
help with a specific problem, or will just drop in for
help. We also encourage students to do their homework at
the center. In other words, since the students are going to
do their math homework anyway, we say, "why not do your
homework right in the center?" Then if they get stuck on a
problem, they can just turn to someone for help.

Fresh@News. What advice do you have for parents?

DN. I can really advise a few things. First, don't
encourage your son or daughter when they say things like:
"I hate math," or "I can't do math." We live in a
quantitative world. That gets us back to the very first
question: why do most first-year students take math? The
reasons are really twofold. Most disciplines require some
quantitative or analytical skills specific to the
discipline, and we try to meet those needs. More generally,
all students need a certain level of "numeracy" or
"quantitative literacy" to be an engaged and responsible
member of that increasingly quantitative world into which
they are headed. Villanova students need some math skills
and they can do the work. If they have difficulties,
encourage them to talk to their professor. Some first year
students are still shy about going to their professor during
office hours, so students might need a bit of encouragement
to take that first step. As we just said, the MLRC is a
great resource. Finally, parents might encourage their sons
or daughters to find a study-buddy or a study group. Our
feeling (and this is supported by research as well) is that
students do much better if they study in groups. Often, the
best way of learning the material is helping someone else to
understand it.

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