The University Record, April 18, 1994

Innovations earn math department $25,000

By Mary Jo Frank

The Department of Mathematics has received LS&A’s 1994 Departmental Award for Contributions to the Undergraduate Initiative. The department will receive $25,000 for its innovative efforts to improve undergraduate education.

Donald J. Lewis, chair and professor of mathematics, will recommend the department use the money to furnish a commons room for students and faculty when the department moves in 1996 to its new quarters in the south wing of the renovated East Engineering Building.

But it is the faculty who will decide how to spend the award, says Lewis, who credits the department’s success to the hard work of instructional staff at all levels.

In announcing the award at last Monday’s LS&A faculty meeting, Dean Edie N. Goldenberg cited a number of contributions the department has made to improve undergraduate education, including:

  • Redesign of Math 105 to better serve as an entry course to calculus, while also serving as a quantitative reasoning course for students with a somewhat limited math background.

  • “New Wave” calculus. This program to redesign the approach to freshman calculus has drawn national attention. “New Wave” calculus incorporates technology and stresses an interactive/cooperative learning mode, requiring more time and effort on the part of faculty and students.

  • Improvements in Math 215 and 216, continuing efforts begun several years ago to use computers to compensate for students’ lack of three- and higher-dimensional geometric intuition.

  • Increased scheduling of tenured and tenure-track faculty for classes for first- and second-year students.

  • Playing a major role in formulation of LS&A’s new Quantitative Reasoning Requirement.

  • Impressive involvement of undergraduates in math research. For the last seven years the department has run the largest math research experience for undergraduates in the country, drawing 20 to 25 students each year to work with faculty.

    Lewis says the departmental changes are the result of a five-year evolution that originated for a variety of reasons, including student dissatisfaction with calculus courses.

    As the department has moved to a more interactive/cooperative learning mode, instructors have become coaches, not lecturers, Lewis explains. They work to help students develop their own responsibility for learning. Students help teach each other as they work together to solve deeper problems.

    “A lot of credit goes to the dean. You can’t do this kind of teaching in classes of 200. She made the funding available for smaller classes,” Lewis says.

    Noting that industry insists that employees be able to work on teams, Lewis says that students coming out of the new calculus curriculum know how to work as team members.

    Mathematics Prof. Morton Brown, who accepted the award on behalf of the department, recalls that beginning in 1986 a general understanding emerged around the country that there was a serious problem with math education.

    It was at that time that Brown became interested in the calculus problem and others started working on other areas of mathematics.

    “Don has been a very amenable leader, very accepting of people suggesting change and proactively encouraging change,” Brown says.

    Development of “New Wave” calculus has involved a lot of people, including senior and junior faculty and teaching assistants, Brown says. “There’s been a change of culture in a good part of the math department,” he adds.

    The Department of Mathematics has 55 tenured and tenure-track faculty, five visiting faculty, 25 three-year postdoctoral appointments and about 100 teaching assistants.

    The department’s biggest responsibility in terms of workload is teaching basic first- and second-year courses for students in LS&A, the College of Engineering and School of Nursing. The department typically has about 6,500 first-and second-year students enrolled in its courses in fall term and another 4,000 enrolled in winter term.

    The Departmental Award for Contributions to the Undergraduate Initiative was made for the first time a year ago, to the Department of Chemistry. Funding for the award comes from gifts to the College.