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Virginia Military Institute
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New Resource Center Offers Open Math Lab

Institute Report, March 2012

A new institution at VMI, the Mathematics Education Resource Center, is helping cadets excel in their mathematics coursework and nurturing an appreciation for mathematics across the region.

This semester the MERC began offering open math labs, which provide the opportunity for cadets to study with access to a tutor Monday through Friday from 6 to 11 p.m. The open lab model allows cadets to get the help they need when they need it.

“They don’t have to make appointments. They don’t have to show up with an agenda and perform like with a one-to-one tutoring system,” said Maj. Randy Cone, associate professor of mathematics and computer science. “They just show up with questions about their homework or their course material and they get help at will.”

“I’ve had cadets tell me that they appreciate having a place to come and get an answer,” said Ruth Ann Hildreth, a math lab tutor. “It’s really helpful for them to be here and work at their own pace.”

Cadets are finding the labs valuable and seeing the lab time pay off in their coursework.

“Having the availability five hours a night is incredible,” said Cadet Keith MacDonald ’14. “Here I can come in every night from 6 to 11 and there’s help if I need it.”

Allowing cadets to work at their own pace and giving them a chance to figure out as much as they can on their own instills valuable skills.

“What we’re trying to do is to encourage cadets to be independent learners,” said Cone. “The next step beyond that, the ultimate goal, is to teach cadets to be independent thinkers.”

The MERC had planned to open in the fall 2012 semester, but since there were so many cadets who could benefit, the center began offering services in January.

“For now we’re serving seven courses. We’re going to expand that when we come into our full opening next year,” said Cone. The current seven courses are 100-level courses. The plan is to bring the total to 12 next semester, including courses in 200 and 300 levels.

The MERC is also implementing an online resource through the Mathematical Association of America called WeBWorK that will offer the opportunity to practice mathematical skills. WeBWorK is open-source software that offers cadets a library of 20,000 homework problems and is already being used for some math courses.

In addition to serving the needs of cadets, the MERC is serving the community by becoming a regional hub for mathematical studies.

“What we would like to do is to create and foster a level of excitement about mathematics and science in general, and we would like to do that at all levels,” said Cone. “We can do this at the middle school level, we can do this at the high school level, and we can do this in our classrooms and labs.”

On Feb. 22, 53 students from area high schools competed in the 10th and 12th grade American Mathematics Competition, held at VMI, a test which challenges students with mathematical questions.

“We had a whole bunch of kids come here, and it was so much fun,” said Cone. “They got really excited about VMI, and they got really excited about participating in this big deal of a test when they wouldn’t normally have had the opportunity.”

VMI’s MERC is filling a void in the region.

“People in the region are really starving for genuine mathematical and scientific challenges, so it’s a great way to serve our community,” said Cone. “Not only does that help us as an institute, but it helps the community as well.”

By bringing local students and cadets into contact with those challenges and appreciating the mathematics behind them, the MERC is helping them see math in a new light.

“This is about seeing that it’s more than just numbers,” said Cone. “It’s actually a bunch of interesting and beautiful ideas. That’s what it really is. That’s what mathematics can be.”