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95
By KayMills
Blacksburg, Virginia
I
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.
Winter 2005
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