March 6, 2012
Metropolitan State University of Denver
Do the math: Metro State’s calculus I program among best in the nation
By Cliff Foster
Metro State has one of the top calculus I programs in the country, and the Mathematical Association of America is sending a team here to see what the College is doing right.
When they arrive, they’ll find small classes, a talented and dedicated faculty and a support system designed to get students excited about math, says David Ruch, chair of the Mathematical and Computer Sciences Department.
In fall 2010, the association surveyed more than 200 U.S. colleges and universities, almost 700 instructors and 14,000 students, looking for factors that improved five measures: passing rates, student interest in moving on to calculus II, general interest to pursue math, their enjoyment of math and confidence in mathematical ability. It controlled for a number of variables, such as gender, race/ethnicity, socio-economic status and previous math courses, to even the playing field among schools of different sizes and with a variety of student body demographics.
The association collected information about each school, its instructors and their approach to the subject, as well as student observations about the classroom, among other things.
The result: Metro State is among 15 colleges and universities identified by the association as having successful programs. The College scored particularly high on its passing rate and students’ attitudes toward math, which were measured at the beginning of the term and at the end.
Metro State’s passing rate was 14 percentage points higher “than we would have expected given the student body,” says David Bressoud, a professor at Macalester College in St. Paul and former president of the association. And it recorded some of the biggest gains in attitudes toward math than any of the institutions across the country, he says.
Reports from the three-member team traveling to Metro State and the other schools will help resolve a conundrum that has experts stymied.
“Across the country everybody is wondering what to do with their calculus classes and how to make them successful. There is a serious problem,” Bressoud says. The survey showed that “generally students go through calculus and come out less interested in mathematics than they were when they went into it. So, finding places like Metropolitan State that actually turned this around and gets students more enthusiastic about mathematics is really important.”
Ruch says there are many ingredients that make the program successful: classes with an average of about 30 students, instructors who are “focused on teaching calculus well,” a tutor lab near faculty offices, active math clubs and plenty of interaction among students and their teachers.
“We try to get our best people in calculus I,” Ruch explains, noting that some large universities have graduate students teaching the subject.
He noted that the math program at Metro State has been influenced by a movement in the math community with roots in a 1990s academic paper called “Calculus for a New Century: A Pump Not a Filter.” Instead of viewing calculus as a way to filter out people, the idea is to use it as a way to get students excited about math.
“We tried to incorporate the lessons learned from that into the way we do our calculus,” he says.