Calculating the Future of Math at Virginia Tech | VTX

Virginia Tech Leaders college of science made plans before Virginia Tech Visitors Council earlier this month for a series of improvements designed to once again make the university a leader in undergraduate studies math education.

The changes will initially take place in courses offered in the Math Emporium, former acting dean of the College of Science Ron Fricker and Trish Hammer, associate dean for faculty affairs and graduate studies, told the Board of Visitors.

While not all of the changes are in place yet, the goal is to give students more flexibility in how they learn math. The Math Emporium’s self-paced, instructor-assisted format works well for some students, but others do better in traditional instructor-led classroom learning.

“People learn differently,” Fricker said, “and Virginia Tech students will now have the flexibility to choose the learning style in which they do best.”

Math education touches almost every student who comes to Virginia Tech. Over 98% of students take at least one course in the College of Science, due to the demands that students in engineering, business, architecture, and other majors have in foundational courses such as math and chemistry.

“Mathematics education is so important that we need to proceed with caution,” said Hammer, who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in mathematics at Virginia Tech. “It’s important that we act strategically and thoughtfully and get it right.”

Math courses make up an astounding 16 credit hours taught at Virginia Tech. When the Math Emporium opened its doors more than two decades ago, it was not only hailed as the cutting edge of math education, but the Virginia Tech model was adopted at many universities across the country. . The method of self-paced math lessons in large halls with hundreds of students in front of computers and traveling instructors is now widely known as the “emporium model”.

But over the years critics have emerged, calling it “big and impersonal”. The Emporium may have been innovative in its heyday, but Hammer said now is the time to recreate a new model based on everything learned over the past two decades. The college will also incorporate innovations in teaching methods that math teachers have adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hammer said.

“Imagine a ‘studio day’ in your introductory math class,” Hammer said. “It will be very interactive. It will have a Math Emporium flavor, with walking instructors and students able to work independently and then get help when they need it.

“Our goal is a state-of-the-art blend of both models.”

The timing is still uncertain, but changes to math education at Virginia Tech will also result in a move away from the well-known Math Emporium location at University Mall. It’s where 25 years ago, Virginia Tech spent $2 million to renovate a former Rose’s department store into an Emporium.

Hammer and Fricker also told the Board of Visitors that the adaptations are not simply a move away from Emporium-style teaching and a return to the traditional model—essentially, lecture three days a week and recitation on the fourth day.

The changes will mean a smaller physical space on campus that will facilitate a more expansive virtual experience – but only for those who choose to go that route.

Kevin Pitts, who took over as dean of the College of Science on June 13, said the changes would put math education at Virginia Tech on a path that demonstrates its commitment to finding the best ways to educate students in ‘today.

“We envision this moving towards a nice mix of traditional math instruction, reinforced by what worked well at the Emporium,” Pitts said. “It’s not just about shrinking the Emporium; rather, it’s about moving towards an exciting, cutting-edge future.

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