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Donor Helps Launch Exceptional First-Year Student Experience in Math

Dean Debbie Tahmassebi is pleased to announce a $500K gift to support an Exceptional First-Year Student Experience for mathematics students. Funding will allow the faculty in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science to pilot new teaching pedagogy through first-quarter calculus labs and will provide support for faculty development, student tutoring, and assessment work. 

Introductory Math has often served as a “filter,” but increasingly these courses are seen as a “facilitator.” A positive experience in first-year mathematics can set students up for future success across disciplines in their college careers.

Santa Clara faculty members are already responding to the challenge to transform the math experience. They are enthusiastically implementing reforms and piloting new teaching pedagogy. With the help of this anonymous gift, they will now be able to accelerate their vision and scope to deliver an exceptional math experience that will simultaneously challenge and serve students.

The first development will be to implement a web-based, artificially intelligent assessment and learning system. This will allow faculty to assess incoming first-year students for their calculus readiness and appropriately place them in math courses. Students will have access to the learning modules as a self-tutorial -- before they arrive at Santa Clara and during their first year -- for continual assessment and to address learning gaps.

Another new tool that will be adopted is an online open source homework system developed through a grant from the National Science Foundation and in conjunction with the Mathematical Association of America. The system is crowd-sourced with math problems added by the entire U.S. university mathematics community and will fill the need for more conceptual problems while also allowing faculty to edit and customize the problems.

An additional development is a first-quarter calculus lab that will enable faculty to utilize innovative and proven active-learning pedagogies such as “Think, Pair, Share,” group work on long conceptual problems, and connecting and relating the calculus coursework to each student’s discipline. The pilot labs will be offered for both the STEM and business calculus sequences.

There are also plans for additional tutoring resources. A post-doc with expertise in both Mathematics and Mathematics Education will train and mentor peer tutors. The expert will recruit student tutors, oversee and train tutors in teaching and in mathematical software, initiate and organize study groups, capture tutoring center data, and provide a feedback loop back to math faculty. The post-doc will also design assessments and help faculty administer them. These assessments will provide important feedback about which pedagogies and approaches are most effective, so faculty can make informed choices about how they teach.

Training is also a priority. With the anticipated increase in the enrollment of SCU undergraduates studying STEM subjects, the College expects to hire a new cohort of STEM faculty each year for the next 5 years. Despite years of graduate training in their areas of expertise, many new professors have not been instructed in how to provide an active learning classroom environment, nor have they been trained to use innovative pedagogies to support STEM learning, including math. With this investment, training programs will focus on demonstrating effective teaching methodologies, modeling classroom assessment techniques, and providing seminars on the science of teaching and learning.

Santa Clara University is poised to lead the way in offering an Exceptional First-Year Student Experience through innovations in delivering an unrivaled first-year math experience for undergraduate students. The College appreciates the tremendous support from our anonymous donor and the leadership of Department Chair Ed Schaefer and the entire Department of Mathematics and Computer Science for their vision and leadership in planning a truly exceptional experience for our students. 

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