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t is 8:30 on a Tuesday night. Students pile out of the shuttle

bus from the nearby Virginia Tech campus and head into

the UniversityMall. But this is not what you think—they are

going there to do course work, take quizzes or study at theMath

Emporium, formerly a Rose’s department store anchoring one

end of the shopping center.

TheMath Emporium is both a place and a concept. It has

changed the way nearly a dozen Virginia Techmath classes are

taught, while saving the universitymoney. On this particular

evening, 314 students have checked in to use some of the 531

computers in the cavernous room.

Three courses—mostly for first- and second-year students—

are now online and are based at the emporium. Unlike the

experience of taking courses entirely online, these students

canmeet with their teachers if they wish, and all graded work

must be completed at the emporium, not on students’ own

computers.

Enrollment in these courses totaled 4,000 last fall. One

reason for the large numbers is that every Virginia Tech

student must satisfy a “Quantitative and Symbolic Reasoning”

requirement, and 98 percent do so by taking amath class.

Eight years ago such huge enrollments led the math

department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute andUniversity

(the school’s full name) to explore better ways of teaching than

simply “putting anyone with a pulse in charge of a class,” as John

Rossi, the current math department chairman, put it. Since

then, several other universities—particularly the University of

Alabama and the University of Idaho—have established similar

programs.

The math emporiumwas part of the first round of course

redesign projects assisted by a grant from the PewCharitable

Trusts, through what is now called the National Center for

Academic Transformation, in Troy, NewYork. Carol Twigg, the

center’s executive director, said the Virginia Tech project was so

successful that it has been adopted as amodel for future efforts

to utilize technology in the teaching of large introductory

courses.

Some Virginia Tech students have complained about not

having a teacher in a classroom. But ChuckHodges, math

emporiummanager and a former math instructor, responds,

“No, you’ve got a dozen.” Help is available frommath faculty,

graduate students or other undergraduates, most days and

nights.The emporium itself is open 24 hours a day, seven days a

week, during the academic year. To summon help, all a student

needs to do is place a very low-tech red plastic cup on top of the

computer.

“Before, students hadme 50minutes, three times a week,

plus my office hours,” Hodges said. “If a student for some

reason did not mesh withmy teaching, he was sort of stuck.

Math Emporium

The use of technology has changed the way Virginia Tech’s introductory math classes are taught

Here, there is an enormous opportunity for different styles of

help.”

Asked why the emporiumapproach works, math

department chairman Rossi said, “I hate to use jargon, but I

think it’s active learning. We are forcing them to do the work.

If they don’t do the work, they’ll flunk. It’s not like sitting in

the back of a class of 500 and doing your e-mail.” Nonetheless,

Rossi still receives messages fromparents who complain that

they are paying all that tuition (undergraduate in-state tuition

at Virginia Tech is $5,838 this year), yet their child doesn’t have

a teacher. “I reply by asking, ‘Howmuch personal attention do

you think your child gets in an introductory psychology class?’”

Three courses are taught entirely at the emporium: college

algebra and trigonometry, differential calculus and introductory

linear algebra. Another half dozenmath

courses have an emporium component.

Before going to the emporium,

students can check its website to see how

many computers are in use. Sometimes

there are lines, so the website warns, “It is

your responsibility to arrive early enough

tomeet your deadlines.”

Students entering the emporium

show their university identification

cards and are assigned a computer if

they want to use one. However, many

students come just to study, because the

emporium is quieter than their dorms or because parking is

more plentiful.

“A typical math emporium session consists of logging into

a computer, then logging into the testing system to take a quiz

or exam,” said Terri Bourdon, the instructor whomanages

Most Virginia Tech students take introductory math classes at the Math Emporium,

a computer lab located in a former department store near the campus.

At the Math Emporium

help is available from

math faculty, graduate

students or other

undergraduates, most

days and nights.

Photos by Jay Paul, Black Star, for CrossTalk