WCSU Math Emporium aims to start students on path to success
Math education program launched in Western’s new computer-aided learning facility

DANBURY, CONN. — A solid foundation in mathematics provides an essential first step for newly enrolled students to stay on track for academic success and graduation at Western Connecticut State University. Students who enter Western without adequate preparation to tackle advanced mathematics at the college level will gain a powerful advantage beginning this year with the launch of Western’s new Math Emporium.

Representing the university’s largest instructional space dedicated to computer-assisted learning, the WCSU Math Emporium in the Higgins Hall Annex spans 3,500 square feet of classroom space renovated this summer to provide a state-of-the-art technological center for mathematics education. The Emporium program, targeted for students enrolled in 100-level basic mathematics courses, is adapted to the specific learning pace of each student and designed to combine software-based learning tools, traditional lecture instruction and one-on-one tutoring.

WCSU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Jane McBride Gates described the Emporium approach to instruction as an educational strategy anchored in four core principles: Learning by doing, focusing on concepts still not mastered, providing immediate help in problem-solving, and requiring full participation.

“Too often, students do not do well in math because they have become passive listeners in the classroom,” Gates remarked. “The Emporium program will require students to do the math themselves. Rather than going over what they already know, students will focus their time in the Emporium working on what they don’t yet know, and they will get assistance immediately when they encounter problems. They will be learning by doing.”

Gates observed that the Math Emporium approach to instruction has a demonstrated track record at universities across the nation in improving course grades and enrollment retention rates among new students who enter college with inadequate foundations in mathematics. “Over the years, I have been very impressed with technologies for adaptive computer-based learning, and I am absolutely thrilled with the Math Emporium,” Gates said. “Our students will have the best of both worlds: They will receive immediate feedback, corrections and guidance while they are doing math problems at the Emporium, and they will have the opportunity to work one-on-one with a faculty member.”

Equipped with a total of 88 learning stations, the Math Emporium offers a flexible open-floor plan with 10 triangular pods, each equipped with computers and seating for four to six students, and a lecture space with computers and seating for 32 students that can be separated by retractable dividers from the rest of the center. The facility features diverse learning aids including whiteboards, SmartBoards connected to the university IT server, and a screen with overhead projection, as well as an adjoining office for faculty and teaching assistants who will provide tutoring on site.

Associate Professor of Mathematics Dr. Senan Hayes, who has coordinated the Math Emporium launch, is teaching a pilot class during the fall semester with an enrollment of 28 students to introduce the new instructional approach that encompasses both elementary and intermediate algebra. Drawing upon models from established Emporium programs at several higher education institutions nationwide, Hayes completed one workbook designed for Western’s pilot course, Math 198, during the summer and currently is finishing a second workbook for the 100-level intermediate algebra course. Mathematics faculty members and teaching assistants involved in 100-level instruction are being trained in use of the Emporium’s software and workbooks.

These preparatory steps will pave the way for full rollout of the Math Emporium program in all 100-level mathematics courses during the spring semester starting in January. Hayes estimated the Math Emporium will provide the opportunity for more than 1,000 students each year to improve their mastery of fundamental mathematics by taking advantage of computer-based adaptive learning techniques that reinforce and build upon classroom instruction. All students in 100-level courses will be required to complete exercises using MyMathLab, a Pearson Education software program, in tandem with the customized WCSU workbooks, enabling each student to make self-paced progress in mastery of lessons with immediate access to tutors to assist with special problems.  “You become an active participant using the software and workbook, and this will make you better at the math you are trying to learn,” Hayes noted.

A recent advance that has enhanced the power of the adaptive learning software used in the Math Emporium is the integration of the data-mining program “Knewton” with Pearson’s MyMathLab. “The Knewton technology helps the software recognize where students are struggling, and directs them to a particular tutorial to help with that specific problem,” Hayes explained.

The target groups who will benefit from the Math Emporium program are those new students placed in intermediate algebra at the 100 level based on SAT math scores between 500 and 540, and those students with SAT math scores below 500 who are placed at the “100-E” level to receive “embedded” elementary algebra along with intermediate algebra instruction. Hayes noted that the latter group previously had been required to fulfill the elementary algebra requirement through a community college course before entering Western: “The Math Emporium will serve them better, and complete the requirement in one semester instead of two.”

Gates noted the Math Emporium will fulfill the mandate under Connecticut Public Act 12-40 to pursue a more effective strategy in remedial and developmental instruction in mathematics and other core competencies, offering college-level course work for degree credit with embedded support for students needing assistance with basic content. She expressed confidence that the success of this new approach will be borne out in higher enrollment retention rates among students taking the Math 100 and Math 100-E courses.

“We know from experience that the old approach to remediation just didn’t work,” she said. “Students who were enrolled in remediation programs were still failing their courses. The Math Emporium speaks to the mainstreaming of these courses and the embedding of core competencies within our general education courses. This course redesign allows us to embed in our for-credit courses any of the deficiencies in math that our students have not met and overcome before they enter Western.”

Hayes explained the course redesign also will contribute to keeping full-time students on track to earning an undergraduate degree within four years. “Research shows that if a student is in developmental math, it takes longer for that student to graduate,” he said. “So when we move away from remediation and introduce enhanced math courses for elementary and intermediate algebra, not only will students’ success rate improve but they will move faster into general education classes, increasing their retention rate.”

Gates emphasized that both the new instructional approach for 100-level math courses and the physical layout of the Math Emporium have been carefully designed to promote active engagement and interaction of students with faculty, tutors and fellow classmates in their learning experience. “We have to understand who our students are — how they learn, how they work — and then provide the appropriate type of learning environment for them,” she said.

Mandatory participation in the computer-assisted learning exercises and classroom lessons also is a cornerstone of the program. Hayes said the university will seek to accommodate students’ personal study habits, extracurricular activities and work schedules by offering extended daytime and evening hours for computer use in the Math Emporium, with the ultimate goal of providing 24/7 access to the facility if staffing resources permit.

Gates observed the vision and realization of the Math Emporium emerged from planning by a faculty committee chaired by Professor of Mathematics Dr. Josie Hamer during the 2012-13 academic year, and received enthusiastic support from WCSU President James W. Schmotter, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Dr. Missy Alexander and Department of Mathematics Chair Dr. David Burns. She praised Hayes for his essential work on design and implementation of the program. “I am impressed not only by his ability to understand the complexity of math learning, but also by his strong commitment to providing support programs for students to learn more effectively,” she said.

For more information, contact the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.



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