[Fresh] Interview with Dr. Douglas Norton, Department of Mathematical Sciences

Kelly Donio (kelly.donio@villanova.edu)
Fri, 14 Oct 2005 13:28:38 -0400

Interview with Dr. Douglas Norton, Chair, Department of Mathematical
Sciences.

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. 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 parents subscribed to
Fresh@News 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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