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Algebra at Roosevelt University to get boost from NSF grant

Posted: 05/15/2014

Can algebra really be fun, important, engaging - even scintillating?

With the help of a new three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Roosevelt’s mathematics faculty members are aiming to reshape beginning Algebra into a new kind of course that undergraduates, most of them freshmen, can positively relate to.   

The new course is to be called College Algebra: Modeling the City, and two sections of it will be offered beginning in the fall at Roosevelt’s Chicago Campus.

“We will be starting with a real-life premise, which is to present actual problems that exist today in Chicago, and then ask our students to find solutions using the algebraic formulas and methods they will be learning,” said Barbara Gonzalez, associate professor of mathematics and chair of the Mathematics and Actuarial Sciences Department at Roosevelt University.

It means that students taking the course could be figuring out things like how long it will take the city to fill potholes, given a rate or rates at which those potholes are being filled. Or it could involve finding an answer to how much time it will take to pay off Chicago’s gargantuan pension debt, factoring in things like the rate at which the city will be paying, or the likely retirement benefits that will accrue down the line.

“A lot of current problems facing the city could come up pertaining to things like food deserts in neighborhoods, CTA ridership and murder rates across the city,” said Cathy Evins, a Roosevelt lecturer in Math who will be teaching the new Algebra course on Mondays and Wednesdays at the University’s Gage Building.  “Our overarching goal will be to teach our students through real-life issues,” she said.

That approach is in keeping with the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement’s Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) model that Roosevelt and other member universities around the country have been subscribing to over the last decade in designing and teaching math and science courses that engage and interest students.

Using the so-called “citizen’s” model for teaching and learning, Roosevelt’s math faculty redesigned Calculus in 2010 to include problems related to important topics like wealth distribution, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the real cost of warranties and the spread of AIDS.

“We’ve seen in these courses that our students’ attitudes have improved because they are finding what they are learning useful and applicable to their fields,” said Melanie Pivarski, who teaches some of the new-styled Calculus.

One of seven universities across the nation to receive funding for the Algebra project from NSF, Roosevelt will receive $40,000 to be used for course redesign and research and presentation on the impact/effectiveness of the newly created course on student learning.

It is expected that the redesign of Algebra will have a more profound impact on student learning than the recent overhaul of Calculus courses, according to Gonzalez, as Algebra  reaches a broader student base.

“We will be writing a scholarly paper about the results and presenting it at upcoming conferences,” Gonzalez said.  “We also expect our findings ultimately to result in a new kind of College Algebra textbook.”