Novel Approaches to Math and Science

James Rolf, the Shizuo Kakutani Lecturer in Mathematics, brings new teaching methods to Yale undergraduates.

This semester, the thirty-five freshmen and sophomores enrolled in James Rolf’s Math 115 are trying a novel approach to learning calculus. The usual order of business is “flipped”—students view Rolf’s videotaped lectures online before they come to class, and they spend their classroom time solving problems that hone their math skills.

Web tools help gauge student progress. “When they watch the video, I have students answer ‘prep’ questions online,” Rolf said. “Looking at their performance—along with analytics from the video-watching—I know before class begins how well my students understand the basic information. If 80 percent do well on a problem, I spend less class time on it. But if 75 percent get the answer wrong, I can tailor my class around the specific concepts and skills that are giving them trouble.”

In class, Rolf favors active learning activities—like small group work and problem-based learning—that require his students to dig deeper into the content. “We find that if students engage in active learning, they are more likely to retain information and improve their critical thinking skills,” he said.

Getting excited about science

To support trailblazers like Rolf, Antonio Magliocco, Jr. ’74 and Carla Solomon ’75 have made a generous contribution to Yale’s Science Teaching Fund, a new resource to promote education in the STEM areas—science, technology, engineering, and math. Both are recent Yale parents, and Solomon, a clinical psychologist by training, has spent the last few years producing Particle Fever, a documentary about the physicists behind the search for the Higgs boson. “Working on the film has given me a new appreciation for how exciting it is to pursue science as a career,” she said.

“We want to encourage curricular reforms at Yale that tap into that excitement, especially in the first two years of college,” Solomon said. “Creating more positive classroom experiences early on can engage students more deeply in STEM subjects, inspire more of them to select STEM majors and stay the course, and prepare more of them for professions in STEM fields, where there is so much demand.”

Meeting a national need

In Washington, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has assessed employment trends and found that in the next decade, the nation’s colleges and universities will need to graduate one million more students in the STEM fields than are currently predicted. The panel also notes that fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.

“One way to educate more people in STEM areas is to improve retention in science, engineering, and math majors,” said Steven M. Girvin, deputy provost for science and technology. “Our initiative will strengthen Yale’s math and science programs overall and increase the participation of underrepresented groups in science careers.”

Rolf, a recent recruit to Yale, is in the vanguard of this work. To revamp Math 115, Rolf turned to the Yale Broadcast & Media Center to record lectures, while Information Technology Services supplied needed software and further funding. With support from the Yale Center for Scientific Teaching, he also designed tools to assess the impact of his methods on student learning and student attitudes.

Moving forward, the Science Teaching Fund will support further science faculty recruitment, curriculum development, upgrades to facilities for science teaching, and new training for Yale faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students.

“The deep knowledge and quantitative reasoning skills that come with a rigorous education in STEM fields enrich Yale’s student experience and benefit society,” Girvin said. “This is a win-win for students in every major.”

(January 21, 2014)

January, 2014