Cindy Bither
Administrative Assistant
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Inquiry-Based Learning at VMI

In Precalculus Class, Students Push through the Material

LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 2, 2012 – The standing-room-only audience in Gillis Theater was taken by surprise when Maj. Randy Cone, VMI assistant professor of math, took the stage to deliver the third plenary talk in VMI’s STEM education conference: Inquiry-Based Learning.

Cone opened his mouth to speak, but his voice was drowned out by a whistle, as a VMI cadet joined him on the stage and commanded the attention of all, including a group of cadets waiting in the wings. Seconds later, the audience was treated to the unusual sight of cadets dancing, with Cone himself right out in front, rapping.

 Cadets rap main 
Cadet math majors dance at the beginning of Maj. Randy Cone's plenary talk. -- Photo courtesy of the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics. 

“Those,” said Cone, as the cadets exited the stage, “are math students, every one of them.”

“That’s our senior capstone course.”

If you infer that math at VMI can be fun, you’re probably getting the drift. And, asserts Cone, it’s all because of the inquiry-based learning approach and the active involvement of the student in the learning process.

Cone described how VMI’s precalculus class has almost no lecture component. “It’s almost all presentations,” he said. Cadets are given the floor to present their problem and its solution– no interruptions – but as soon as they get that answer box filled in, it’s open-mic time.

Cadets contribute their own strategies for solving the problem, turning a wrong answer into a right one, sometimes several times over, as was evidenced by a video of the class.

“This went on for 10 minutes,” said Cone. “By the end of this 10 minutes, we had three different methods of solution written up on the side boards, on the front board.”

Cone, who said he loves teaching, derives inspiration from many sources, from Stephen Hawking, from musicians, from his dogs, Luna and Turtle, who also made an appearance on the screen during his talk.

 Cone, Randy 
Maj. Randy Cone talks about inquiry-based learning. -- VMI Photo by  John Robertson IV. 

Cone said he has a lot of experience training dogs, and when the training fails, 99 percent of the time the problem is not with the dogs, it’s with the owners.

One natural approach to teaching is to explain.

“I can lecture to Luna all day long. I do and I have,” said Cone. “There’s a problem with that. She’s not a native English speaker. It doesn’t work.”

Cone has encountered a similar situation with students. “Most of my students are not native mathematics speakers.”

It’s up to the teacher to set the lessons and praise and reward the right things.

In Cone’s IBL precalculus classroom, he’s in the back. The students are in front, giving presentations; then, after he offers some guiding principles, they do homework, group work, experiments. And the strategy works.

“These students care about the material, and they’re pushing through it,” said Cone. “Students love the independence, the responsibility for the material.”

–Sherri Tombarge