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Computer-Based Foundations Math Courses Get
Enthusiastic Reception from Students


West 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 classes.

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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Students are enthusiastic about the college's new, computer-based math courses.
Emmie Koss, assisted by student mentor, sophomore business major Loc Tran, says she is becoming a bigger fan of math.
Instructor Nandita Koppikar with adult student Carolyn Hawkins.
Student Kurt Halvorsen ia moving rapidly through the modules.
Terry Weitzman is one of several instructors available to answer questions in the lab.