Math That Matters Deepens Cadet Engagement

Rob Soluri ’22 talks with Lt. Col. Brent Hierman, associate professor of international studies, about his research on gun control and violent crime rates.—VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

Rob Soluri ’22 talks with Lt. Col. Brent Hierman, associate professor of international studies, about his research.—VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

LEXINGTON, Va., May 2, 2019—As the 2018-19 academic year draws toward a close, so does the first year of VMI’s Math That Matters: Math for the Modern World, which was implemented this year as part of the Institute’s quality enhancement plan (QEP).

Development of the QEP began in 2016 as the Institute readied for its reaccreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). As part of the reaccreditation process, which occurs every 10 years, each SACS member school must choose one aspect of its academic program for strengthening.

During the most recent reaccreditation cycle, the Department of Applied Mathematics chose to introduce a new course sequence for cadets whose majors do not require calculus, with the goal of teaching those cadets the quantitative skills that they’ll need in their future careers.

Development of the QEP was a multi-year, cross-departmental effort, with faculty from the applied mathematics department meeting with faculty from a number of other departments, among them international studies, history, English, and biology, to learn more about the mathematical skill sets needed by cadets majoring in those disciplines.

The goal has been to make math relevant to cadets whose majors seem largely devoid of mathematics—and to increase cadets’ engagement by inviting them to tackle self-chosen projects that can be solved using quantitative skills.

On Monday, April 29, over 230 cadets presented the results of their research at a poster session held in Marshall Hall.  Projects spanned the gamut of cadet interests, from comparing air quality between Beijing and Southern California to the overfishing of tuna populations. Some had a direct focus on the VMI experience: for example, one pair of cadets compared the rates of stress-related injuries, such as stress fractures, between male and female cadets during the Rat Line.

Applied mathematics faculty say that while the implementation of Math That Matters has gone well overall, they’ve felt the strain that almost always accompanies a major change. There’s no textbook for Math That Matters, and the class doesn’t lend itself well to a lecture format. Much of the work is accomplished in pairs or small groups, with the instructor acting as a guide.

“It’s much more of a hands-on experience, and they’re doing the work themselves rather than waiting for me to do it for them,” said Maj. Lucas “Luke” Castle, a post-doctoral fellow who was hired to help implement the QEP.

“It’s more geared toward the cadets discovering the material rather than me just telling them, ‘Hey, this is how it is,’” Castle continued. He explained that his classes are made up of what he terms “micro-teaching” moments that take place as he floats between small groups of cadets, asking how things are going and where learners might be encountering frustration.

Sometimes, cadets aren’t the only ones feeling a degree of frustration.

“It has been a new challenge to create a new class with a new pedagogy that a lot of us haven’t done before,” said Col. Troy Siemers, chair of the applied math department. “It’s very cadet-centric.”

Also experiencing some of the discomfort that comes with change has been Lt. Col. Jessica Libertini, associate professor of applied mathematics. Along with Maj. Karen Bliss, assistant professor of applied mathematics,  Libertini was one of the new course sequence’s main architects.

“It is an art, as opposed to a science, as to how you manage a class when you’re not just up there lecturing,” Libertini acknowledged. “At what point is it okay to let students struggle for a while, and at what point should you step in?”

Both Siemers and Libertini have experienced some of the headaches that come with teaching a brand-new class with no textbook and no off-the-shelf materials. Cadets are required to bring their laptops to class, and use Microsoft Excel for many assignments, yet cadets have different versions of Excel on their machines, and their familiarity with the spreadsheet software varies widely.

There’s also some confusion, Libertini explained, among cadets as to where to find their assignments and when they are due because some assignments are handed out physically and some are given electronically.

“We need to come up with an standard operating procedure for how students engage with this course,” she said.

Libertini added that this summer, she’ll be writing instructor guides for Math That Matters, plus evaluating cadet learning with the goal of making sure the needs of all learners are met.

But while faculty members see room for improvement, cadet response to Math That Matters has been largely favorable.  “To their mind, they’re taking a math class that makes math applicable,” Libertini stated.

Sometimes, the work is so unlike any previous mathematics course they’ve experienced that cadets exclaim, “This isn’t math!” To Libertini, that’s a golden opportunity to let her students know that in the real world, mathematics is much more than endless rows of equations to be done for a homework grade.

Libertini said that for her, one of the highlights of teaching Math That Matters is “being able to show [cadets] the utility of mathematics, the broad applicability of mathematics, the approachability of mathematics. … Math should be about problem-solving, figuring out what’s important to you and figuring out ways of quantifying that,” she commented. “What story does this data tell?

Gauging the true success of Math That Matters will take at least three years, Siemers noted—because the end goal is to produce historians, biologists, and others who aren’t afraid to use the quantitative skills appropriate to their disciplines. Capstone projects, typically completed in a cadet’s 1st Class year, will likely tell the tale, said Siemers.

“Are they choosing [subjects] that are more computationally intensive than they were in the past?” he asked.

-Mary Price



VMI: Forging 21st Century Leaders