MATH MALL

November 17, 2009


A very interesting article recently appeared in our local newspaper (Chattanooga Times Free Press).  “UTC revamping math classes with a MATH MALL”.  Catchy title now let us look at some history.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is a campus in the University of Tennessee Educational System of schools.  It has an annual enrollment of approximately 9,000 students, both undergraduate and graduate.   Chattanooga University was founded in 18886 and for 83 years was local and private.  In 1969, the university merged with the University of Tennessee.  UTC is a very important “player” in the life of the greater Chattanooga area and provides the tri-state region with a significant number of graduates populating the employment pool.  UTC had a very direct influence on VW during their process of selecting a “state-side” site for their North American assembly plant.  The factory is now under construction and will be operational in 2011.  There have been sixty-five thousand applicants for twelve hundred jobs.

Now, back to math.  The Times states that “math classes have become a major headache and turnoff for students at UTC”.  This information comes to us from a survey taken by the school with information volunteered by the students.   Students described “bad math teachers” and having to take remedial math courses over and over and over again.  “One student stated that she liked math, but would not major in anything related to math so that she would avoid UTC’s math department and professors”.

As a mechanical engineer, I had to have a minor in mathematics—we all did.  Thirty hours minimum and we struggled through the courses but felt we had earned our “red badge of courage” when we could see the light at the end of the tunnel.   I do remember that, with only one exception, all of my teachers were “old, white guys”, excellent math technicians, all PHDs, fairly humorless and for the most part, graded their own papers.  During those days I never saw a TA (teaching assistant not tits and ass).  There was this one fascinating lecture in which our professor proclaimed that the very best mathematicians had the following enviable characteristics:

  • Fearless
  • Immune to criticism
  • Had the largest waste basket with a verity of wadded papers representing a multitude of false-starts
  • No pencil with erasers

In other words, math is a contact sport.  You definitely learn by doing, not thinking about doing.  Trial and error but mostly error.  This is apparently what UTC recognized and in hopes of addressing their problem, they have authorized $360,000 dollars to develop an interactive “math mall” in which the students work at their own pace.  Just the student and the PC.  As a matter of fact, the PC would eventually replace the in-class teacher AND the math lecture.  The only personal interaction would be a tutor; available during all math sessions.  The school cites successes at the University of Alabama, The University of Mississippi, Virginia Tech, Cleveland State and several other notable universities.   Apparently, this is desperately needed because 50% of the entering freshmen are required to take remedial math courses.  Personally, I think this is absolutely appalling but I suppose it is a sign of the times.  In a country in which there are only 70,000 engineering graduates per year, as compared to China with 600,000 engineering graduates per year, there certainly must be something terribly wrong with our ability to keep the interest of students who might have even a partial interest of making a technical profession their individual aim.

Personally, I like the “old white guys”.

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