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Original Article:
Math Emporium (winter 2005)


Math Instruction at Virginia Tech
May 2008

ALL OF THE COMPUTERS at Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium have been replaced, some of them a couple of times, since National CrossTalk published an article about this program in January 2005. “We replace about a third of them each year,” said Michael Williams, a Virginia Tech math professor, and the director of the Math Emporium.

Featuring 550 Macintosh workstations, the cavernous facility is still housed at the same location, a former department store across the street from the campus. And it has reached the limits of its size. The number of students who take a complete emporium course (one that has no formal classroom component) has increased about ten percent. But because so many other classes make use of the emporium, and because students also like to use it on an informal basis, limits have been put in place to prioritize the availability of the computers.

“When we were giving final exams,” Williams said, “we had a line out the door, for a 45 minute wait, for those free-use computers, which are used commonly for group work and other kinds of studying. But we had to limit the amount of free-use time in order to make sure computers are available for test takers.”

Do students generally like the emporium? “Some love it; some hate it,” Williams said. “Probably more of them dislike it, but they’ll tell you things like, ‘I don’t like to have to teach it to myself.’ What they’re missing is that, in the end, you teach everything to yourself. That struggle is what changes your mind and makes for learning. In the emporium that connection is painfully obvious. In essence, it amounts to hard work.”

In the last few years several courses have been added to the emporium’s offerings, which included college algebra and trigonometry, differential calculus and introductory linear algebra. “We also run a two-semester business calculus course, and a two-semester course for architectural students,” Williams said. “We also have another course, like the linear algebra, that’s first-year multivariate calculus. We generally take on a course over the summer, and then rewrite it for the emporium.”

That will change this summer, however. “We are at a limit, and cannot support any more students, so we have to put a freeze on converting more courses, though there are certainly more candidates,” Williams said. “Virginia hasn’t been kind to higher education through the years. Our staffing is way down, and it continues to fall.”

Although there is often resistance, particularly among faculty, to converting courses for the emporium, it all comes down to cost, according to Williams, who would like to see to it that savings realized from the emporium remain within the math department. “It’s such a total change in the way you approach education, and it requires a substantial effort to make the switchover,” Williams said. “The thing that makes the emporium go economically is critical mass—it’s scalable. And that leads you to large enrollment classes. We tend to look toward specialty service courses with high enrollments. Cutting costs on them will result in real savings.”

The recently implemented course for architectural students, which is a mix of calculus and geometry, is a good example. “We’ve had such a squeeze, and it was next on the chopping block,” Williams explained. Noting that there were a number of instructors who were upset about the change, he added, “It’s not a happy thing.”

Perhaps the most important benefit of this approach is that these courses become more available to students. “There’s a real emphasis around here about not putting capped enrollments in place for math classes,” Williams said. “When you start capping courses, that’s when graduation times lengthen significantly, because students can’t get spots in the courses they need.”

Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium was a trailblazer, of sorts, and has been much imitated in the decade since it was established. Carol Twigg, executive director of the National Center for Academic Transformation, cites the emporium as a prime example of the positive results that can be achieved through technological transformation in higher education. “It was the first such program,” said Twigg, whose organization has assisted in the development of many more. “We based our approach on what they did at Virginia Tech,” she added. “The two stories are like the micro and the macro.”

—Todd Sallo

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