Students crunch numbers in Math Emporium PDF Print E-mail
Written by DAVID DUPONT Sentinel Staff Writer   
Friday, 20 December 2013 10:59
BGSU student Keia McCarver working on math inside Olscamp Hall on the campus of Bowling Green State University. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
The semester is winding down, and for students it's crunch time, and for the students in the Math Emporium on the second floor of Olscamp Hall it's number crunching time.
During a recent visit to the Bowling Green State University classroom, about 50 students were spread throughout the room sitting, their gazes fixed on the screens of MacAir computers.
This is the Math Emporium where students study math from beginning algebra through Algebra II, using software customized by their teachers, that allows students to move at their own pace. It's material they probably were exposed to in high school.
The Math Emporium is "an innovative teaching space," David Meel, who directs the program, told the BGSU Faculty Senate earlier this month.
The two faculty members, the instructors of record, Michelle Heckman and Deb Trace, are at the front of the room, not lecturing but watching, checking work, answering questions and occasionally giving a student a high five for successfully completing an exam.
The Math Emporium is not new. A veteran instructor, Heckman said she's been using it for three years. This is the first time she's taught in the open lab setting.
Here students can watch videos explaining different lessons, then work out problems related to the lessons, and then take a test.
"As an instructor I'm not having to teach to the masses and they're pretty bored," Heckman said.
Feasibly they could do all this without much interaction with a teacher, but Heckman and Trace are always there to answer questions, as are one or two graduate students in math as two or three undergraduate assistants, who are math education majors.
They are "math coaches," Meel said, "serving students, helping them make sense of the math."
Meel explained that unlike some places that use this model, BGSU opted to schedule Math Emporium as a regular class. Students have times when they are expected to be in the lab, instead of just offering it as an open lab.
That means help for those struggling is also available. Class sizes, though, are such that the lab always has space for students who want to come in for extra work.
This self-paced approach allows some to fly through the work. Heckman said one student finished in three weeks. It allows students to finish their math work early in the semester, she said, so they can then concentrate on their other courses.
"Things they know they can zip right through," Heckman said. That allows them to focus more on the more challenging lessons.
Of course, for some, setting their own pace can be a problem especially for freshmen. "Time management is not their friend yet," Heckman said.
Two students in the lab that day indicated they would really prefer a more traditional approach.
Keith Kaplan, a freshman from Chicago considering a business major, felt he was just "reviewing" material, not learning it, and that the course had "no actual instructor."
Keia McCarver, a junior from Toledo majoring in Human Resources who transferred from Eastern Michigan, found herself in the course because BGSU's requirements are different than EMU's.
She finds the class "a little too free." It's a little too easy to procrastinate.
She did find the course came together better if she watched the instructional videos first. Still that doesn't replace, for her, having an instructor in front of the room.
Trace, who has taught for over 20 years, conceded the self-directed format daunting for some students. "That's why it's up to us to provide that support," she said, "that gentle pushing."
In the divisive atmosphere of the university in the wake of layoffs of non-tenure track employees, the Math Emporium has draw skepticism from some faculty who see it as a way of  outsourcing instruction.
Heckman, who like Trace is non-tenure track faculty, noted she develops the course material using MyLabsPlus, just as she would for a traditional class.
Faculty also question the cost, noting that trustees approved $6.5 million last spring for Math Emporium. That was for renovating a large part of Olscamp for the program. Then the administration decided it could not afford to devote that much of Olscamp, a key classroom building, to the program, so that plan was scrapped.
When the faculty presented the administration with an open records request about the cost of the project, university legal counsel responded by saying there were no records that matched the request. Technically correct: the project had been canceled.
Where the Math Emporium will end up is still in the air, but it's continued use is not.
Haught, who teaches English, said she sees benefits to the Math Emporium approach but still wonders if students "have genuinely mastered the concepts rather than simply demonstrating that they're more proficient in test-taking on a given unit."
What Meel does know is that the traditional way of teaching wasn't helping students. Far too many of them were failing math and with the university concerned about retaining students, that failure affects the entire university.    
Heckman said in the future she hopes it will be possible for students to move within one semester from one course to another.
Meel said he would like to see students enroll in one-credit modules so they could concentrate and get credit just for that material they need to master and keep them on track toward graduation.

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