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[Fresh] Math at Villanova



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 (appropriate enough with the upcoming electoral season). Since mathematics is (among other things!) 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. What about the business students?  We hear that their course has changed.

DN. Up until this year, we had a special two-semester sequence for our business majors that included important concepts of calculus along with statistics, modeling, and data.  Recent articles in publications such as The Economist and Business Week have emphasized the importance of "quants" (quantitative thinkers) in business these days -- not just in financial companies in particular but in all sorts of businesses.  With the development of financial derivatives and difficulties such as that of the recent sub-prime loan market, folks with good quantitative skills  -- not just computational skills but good habits of analytical thinking -- are in high demand, and the non-specialists need much more quantitative awareness than in the past. Starting this fall, the Villanova School of Business has all of its first-year students in the standard Calculus sequence, right along side the engineering and business majors. That sort of thorough and in-depth approach to the ideas of calculus should serve them well as they head into an increasingly quantitative business environment.

Fresh@News. What about math anxiety? Some of our subscribers say that they suffered from 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 young man who was told, "You'll never get this, take an English course instead." After a while, 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; others 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." 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. All Villanova students need at least some math skills, and they all 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.