Windsor, N.J. - Did someone use "math" and "fun"
in the same sentence? Students in pilot foundations math classes
at Mercer County Community College have been using those words
together a lot lately.
Not only that. According to Dean Robin Schore, instructors
report that students are showing up early for class. And leaving
late. And staying through lunch.
Rolled out in January after the college received a $40,000
grant from the National Center for Academic Transformation,
two redesigned courses, pre-Algebra and Algebra, are being
offered at the West Windsor and James Kerney campuses. Students
attend three classes per week in Mercer's computer labs, while
instructors circulate the room to offer guidance, explain
concepts and answer questions.
With each course presented entirely online, students can log
in any time, day or night, from any computer. They can move
through the modules at their own pace, earning gold bars as
they master different sections.
That's a great motivator for some students, observes instructor
Nandita Koppikar. "Some students really push for that.
It's like a challenge to them. There are lots of examples
and hints so they can understand the material better. It's
completely interactive - and fun!"
Notes Dean Schore, "Students can complete two courses
in a semester or less, whereas in traditional classes, each
course takes a full semester to complete. They will be able
to get out of foundations courses more quickly and into college
classes. This is very good news for our students. "
Student Emmie Koss says she was not a big fan of math when
she was a kid, but that's changing. "I like the computer
aspect of the class. It's a good way to learn. With this approach,
I'm starting to like math more."
Observes adult student Carolyn Hawkins, "The interactive
nature of the class helps to reinforce what you are learning.
It takes you step by step." Hawkins, who returned to
college to pursue her associate degree as a medical lab technician,
was initially uncomfortable with the computer-based approach,
but says she is putting in "200 percent" as she
adjusts to the technology that has become an integral part
of today's job market. "I know I will need it for my
future," she acknowledges.
For Assistant Professor of Mathematics Betty Peterson, who
was instrumental in writing the grant application, the response
thus far from students has been very satisfying. "When
I was writing the grant, I imagined the benefits of this approach,
and now, seeing it in action, I couldn't be happier."
According to Peterson, the software was originally developed
by Carnegie Mellon University for K-12 students. "Then
they said, 'Why not develop curricula for community colleges?'"
As with students, instructors also have 24/7 access to their
classes. "We can see what lessons students are working
on, and how well they are doing," Petersen explained.
"The software provides real hands-on learning for students
and great assessment tools for instructors."
With the advantage of moving at their own pace, by the end
of this semester in May, some students will have successfully
finished one course, while others will have completed both.
Petersen notes that even before spring break - the halfway
point in the semester - several of her students had already
finished eight of fourteen modules, well on their way to earning
the pre-requisites they need to move into college level math
Returning student Kurt Halvorsen clearly appreciates the class
he landed in. Laid off from a teaching job, he has returned
to college to pursue a career in nursing. "The lesson
explains everything you need to do. It's not what I expected,
but I am really enjoying it."
Working independently, Halvorsen is rapidly working his way
through the modules. "So instead of sitting in a class
and hearing something repeated that I have already mastered,
I can move on at my own pace. I like it a lot."
Petersen acknowledges that the proof of the computer-based
approach will come with the final exam at the end of the semester,
when instructors will have the data to compare the success
rates of these students with those in traditional foundations
classes. But early signs are all positive and Dean Schore
anticipates a significant expansion of these classes starting
in the fall semester.
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