For the third summer in a row, the ACM will offer Calculus: A Modeling Approach, an online course that aims to give students the high level of student-faculty interaction that is characteristic of courses on the ACM campuses.
The course is designed for students majoring in the social sciences and natural sciences — such as economics or environmental science — who want to learn more about using quantitative methods to solve problems in their disciplines.
St. Olaf College mathematics professor Kristina Garrett will teach the course, which will be in session from June 22 through August 7. The course is open to students at ACM colleges, with an application deadline of March 31 [Editor’s note: Application deadline extended to May 1]. Enrollment in the course is capped at 20 students to keep the class small and participatory.
Garrett collaborated with fellow mathematician Chad Topaz from Macalester College to develop and teach a pilot online course in summer 2013. The effort was supported by the ACM Online Learning Project, an initiative to investigate ways that online learning might be used to enhance the educational mission of small, residential liberal arts colleges.
The pilot was such a success that Topaz went solo as the course instructor last year, aided by a pair of undergraduate student assistants who were readily available online to address the students’ questions about homework assignments and video lectures. Garrett intends to follow the same model when she leads the class this summer.
“One of the things we use to foster engagement [among the students taking the course] is the online forum, Piazza, where students can post questions to each other and the faculty,” Garrett said. “The student assistants can help with some of that — answer questions and communicate with students while they’re working on homework at their own pace.”
A key to the success of the course has been its focus on building a community of learners, which Garrett and Topaz have done through the forum and other online communication, as well as in live videoconference tutorials when students meet with faculty every week.
The regularly-scheduled, face-to-face meeting is a particular strength of the course, according to Garrett. “This is a very intensive, interactive course even though it’s online,” she said. “We expect students to be interacting with us and with each other, and that’s not typical in online courses.”
In Garrett’s view, the content — looking at calculus from an applied perspective — is what really makes the course special. “Students get to see problems from many disciplines in the course, and they get to look at ‘real world’ problems and ‘real world’ data,” she said. “Why do we care about rate of change? Because we care about the economy and about the environment and other things that are all intertwined with these rate of change ideas, which are central to calculus.”
The course’s focus on grappling with examples drawn from economics, biology, and other disciplines “is a little messier sometimes,” Garrett added, “but it’s much more inspiring.”