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Students can come to the new Mathematical Sciences Learning Laboratory for tutoring and other assistance with basic, foundational math courses.
If theres a University of Delaware department that really knows how to rely on numbers, its Mathematical Sciences,
and faculty members there have been seeing some worrisome data a
large proportion of freshmen failing or dropping their beginning math
courses and, too often, difficulties with math causing interested
students to abandon STEM classes altogether.
We know that, nationally, a large number of students enter college
with an interest in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math],
but those numbers drop off, said John Pelesko, professor of
mathematical sciences and interim associate dean for the natural
sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. A lot of that attrition
is due to negative experiences in college math classes, so we decided to
address it. We realized that we cant fix this problem by doing the
same things that got us here.
The department and the college came up with what they think is a
solution. They established a dedicated one-stop shop to provide
innovative teaching, specialized classroom space and tutoring, advising
and test-taking services for students taking basic, foundational
The Mathematical Sciences Learning Laboratory (MSSL) occupies a
former physical therapy clinic in McKinly Lab. It remodeled the area and
introduced its services last spring and began operating on a full
schedule this semester.
Its large classroom is modeled on the instructional space in the
Harker Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory, with
movable desks and chairs to encourage small-group problem-solving and
embedded technology to allow students and faculty to easily share and
discuss their work.
Two foundational mathematics courses are taught there, and four
faculty members who teach those courses have moved their offices to the
space as well. An adjoining room is used for testing, with the goal of
easing stress on students who no longer have to attend class, take tests
and meet with professors or advisers in three or four different
Students say they like the convenience, said Dawn Berk, assistant
professor of mathematical sciences and founding director of MSLL, and
she noted that interactive, problem-based learning is an effective
teaching method. But, she said, by far the most popular service is the
drop-in tutoring offered in MSLL when formal classes arent using the
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Faculty members who have moved their offices to the new space are, from left, Giovanna Fiorentino, MSLL Director Dawn Berk, Bettyann Daly and Tammy Rossi.
The first week we offered tutoring, students were lined up in the
hallway waiting for the doors to open, Berk said. We ran out of tables
and chairs, and they were sitting on the floor. The other instructors
and I came out to help the tutors before they got overwhelmed.
Tutoring hours have since expanded, stretching well into the evening
and now also offered on Sundays. About 500 students a week are using the
service, which is available for the two courses taught at MSLL and for
five others, up to and including introductory calculus.
Next fall, the hope is to add a second room in McKinly to use for
class meetings, freeing up the current MSLL space for full-time
When I was in graduate school, I heard about introductory math
classes being used to weed out students who failed them, Berk said.
Thats a very different situation from today at the University of
Delaware. We want students to have a good experience with college math;
if they work hard, we will help them be successful.
Although MSLL is new, she said the rate of students getting Ds or Fs or dropping basic math classes has already declined.
Students using the tutoring services recently said the help from
upperclassmen who are majoring in math has enabled them to become more
comfortable with classroom material. The interactive work and flexible
hours have been a plus, they said.
For Amy Fligor, serving as a tutor has benefited her own studies in
math education. Teaching students from different backgrounds and
learning levels has helped me understand how to approach teaching from
different perspectives that ensure they are understanding me, she said.
Faculty members expect to find the same benefits, said Louis Rossi,
professor and chairperson of mathematical sciences. By dedicating
resources to students who might struggle with math, the department is
developing new and effective approaches to teaching those students, he
This represents the deepest and most coordinated commitment to a
group of students weve ever made, he said. We think its empowering
for students. We think it will provide them not just with skills they
need but also with a positive attitude toward math.