MathExcel is a program for first year calculus with a twenty-three year record of success. It is neither an honors, nor a remedial program, but is intended to help qualified students learn how to excel in a difficult subject that is the foundation for many majors. Students meet in groups of 6-8 several times a week under the supervision of a graduate student leader and two upper-classman peer mentors. They work through a series of equations together as a group.
The program began in 1990 under the guidance of UK mathematics professor Dr. Michael Freeman. Dr. Freeman had attended a meeting of the American Mathematics Society where he hear Dr. Uri Treisman speak about the workshop model he developed for women, minorities and other underserved groups of students to succeed in basic mathematics courses. Freeman then visited UT Austin where the Treisman model was working well. Freeman wrote in 1997: “I wanted to bring the Workshop Model here because it looked like so much fun to be around classrooms like that — unconventional classrooms with motivated students helping each other. The esprit, the atmosphere, is absolutely marvelous; it’s intoxicating, in fact. And it’s turned out to be even better than I thought it would be… It brings out the best in everybody connected with it.” (See also the white paper in 2001 from College Board describing the origins of this model.)
By the fall of 1990, Freeman launched the UK program called MathExcel for Calculus I & II, large lecture classes that serve engineering, all the physical sciences, mathematics, secondary meath education as well as many biology majors and pre-meds. The MathExcel workshops, organized around cooperative study, supplanted two “recitation” sessions for students who chose this option. Their activities are more stimulating and more challenging than regular homework or test problems. At the beginning of each Workshop session, the students are given a Worksheet of calculus problems that they solve collaboratively. The students should have done their assigned homework prior to the Workshop, and there are more problems on the Worksheet than anyone could reasonably expect to complete in two hours.
The graduate teaching assistants and undergraduate assistants act as Socratic guides – the students learn from each other. Meeting three times a week for two hours each, these students are in class three more hours per week than the other Calculus students. Rachel Roston, a former UK MathExcel peer mentor, wrote after graduating summa cum laude from UK with degrees in mathematics and Latin and a Wethington Fellowship in graduate school, “The ability to problem solve is one talent which effectively separates those who will thrive from those who will struggle. As a high school math teacher, I hope to provide my students with a solid foundation of critical thinking and problem solving skills.”
By 1993, MathExcel won the University of Kentucky’s Excellence in Undergraduate Education Award, and Dr. Freeman began working with other departments at UK as well as from other institutions to mentor their adaptations of the workshop model. Professor Joe Wilson adapted the model to Chemistry, and Professor John Christopher initiated PhysExcel. Other adaptations of UK’s MathExcel include elementary algebra through calculus, Chemistry, Physics, and Biology at 17 institutions in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Oregon.
The results from the program have shown its value to the participants and to the University overall. According to an article by Freeman for the National Institute for Science Education, by 1999 MathExcel students made almost twice as many As and Bs as the other introductory Calculus students and routinely exceeded one grade point on the department’s standard tests. They were also graduating from UK at a rate of 12 percentage points higher than traditional students. Students in the Fall term 1995
In the Fall 2009 semester, 81% of Math Excel calculus students earned an A, B or C (compared to the overall rate of 69% that term). Out of 666 calculus students enrolled in Fall 2009, 81 withdrew – but only 3 of the 78 MathExcel students withdrew. As former director, Dr. Peter Perry, described this important result of the program: “Our students stick with it, get better grades and the reason why is they are getting more practice, they are getting more personal attention and we follow them more closely.” Another important result of the program is that it equips its graduate students and peer mentors with teaching experience, helping them to build confidence in themselves as instructors and encouraging them to enjoy teaching.
The Math Department combined enrollment records from 2007-11 and examined the grades only of those students with a Math ACT score of 28 to compare students with similar academic credentials. They found that 80% of students in a MathExcel section of Calculus I (MA 113) earn a grade of A, B or C compared to 63% of students in regular sections. At the same time, MathExcel has expanded in recent years. Six years ago, the Math Department offered 3 sections of MathExcel (two in the fall and one in the spring). And, they replaced the Math House on Columbia Drive (demolished to make room for another Greek residence hall) with a historic home on Maxwelton Court. By 2012-13, they offered 7 sections of MathExcel. The credit for this expansion goes to Dr. Perry and College of Arts & Sciences Dean Mark Kornbluh who found the money to support this important program at the University of Kentucky.
A critical component to the MathExcel program is its multidisciplinarity. Dr. Peter Perry explained in a recent article why this program is not just for math and science majors – many disciplines are now more dependent on mathematical tools. “We ought to strive to give our students the best foundation for work and citizenship. To me, mathematics is critically important for both. There is nothing more important than for our country to have well-trained scientists and engineers and teachers to keep the nation economically strong and intellectually strong.”
This year’s Director of the MathExcel Program is Dr. Russell Brown. He told UGE staff recently that the math faculty “incorporated some features from MathExcel in all of our calculus courses. This is not a separate, named program, but is an example of the wide impact MathExcel has had.” The program’s approach to the practice of mathematics is fundamentally group and community oriented – which, according to the proponents of this program, is what “doing math” is all about.