Math 50 series to incorporate a new application-based curriculum

July 1, 2015, 10:26 p.m.

In the midst of student feedback, the Math 50 series has undergone a comprehensive review with new reforms specifically for Math 51. About 850 to 1000 students enroll in Math 51 each year, and starting fall 2015, the course will incorporate more active learning, a more application-based curriculum and interwoven linear algebra and calculus aspects.

Created almost two decades ago, the 50 series was designed to introduce a wide variety of math concepts to students of different backgrounds, according to Brian Conrad, professor of mathematics and the department’s director of undergraduate studies. However, striking the perfect balance of concepts while maintaining a fast pace due to the constraints of the quarter system has left some students dissatisfied.

“I felt that the material was pretty disjointed,” said Alex Welch ’16, a rising senior majoring in engineering physics. “There’s a lot of random topics that don’t quite mesh together. Since I am an engineer, I never felt that the applications were made clear enough.”

Conrad explained that the classes were created to cater to a wide range of majors, not one.

“Students often come with different backgrounds and interests, so if we focused on one [group of students] such as engineering, then the economics students might feel dissatisfied with the experience,” he said.

Charlie Jiang ’16, another rising senior majoring in engineering physics, found that the pacing was also a problem.

“I felt that the Math 50 series conveyed the information, but the educational experience could have been improved,” Jiang said. “The fast pace of the syllabus made it hard to fully absorb some concepts.”

To combat the pacing difficulties, Brian White, professor of mathematics and chair of Stanford’s Department of Mathematics, suggested that the curricula needed to be regrouped among the classes in the series.

“I think there were understandably complaints from students that the course moved very fast,” White said. “Some topics get used in Math 53 more directly than in Math 51. Maybe those linear algebra topics could be limited to only Math 53 instead.”

But this isn’t the first time the department has implemented reforms to the course. In just the past year, the curriculum in Math 51 has changed, specifically in regard to the presentation of material. Instead of the previous seven weeks of linear algebra followed by three weeks of calculus, the topics are now interwoven together.

“We realized students may be more motivated to learn the subject material if they could see the linear algebra topic and then see how it’s applied in calculus,” Conrad said.

Furthermore, during the 2015 spring quarter, senior lecturer Mark Lucianovic taught two sections of Math 51 using an “active learning” approach. He explained that using this approach allowed students to maximize class time and better retain information for midterms.

Before class, students answered questions online to help shape in-class discussion. Class would consist of lectures, short questions and practice exam problems with the guidance of a teacher or TA. The curriculum and tests remained the same.

“Students did significantly better with the active learning approach,” Lucianovic said. “Most scored more than a letter grade better than their traditional classroom peers [during the same quarter].”

The math department plans to implement even more classes with this approach while still keeping the traditional classroom option available.

Next year, students will be able to choose which learning style they prefer at the beginning of the quarter. Currently, the mathematics department is working toward designing the curriculum in order to teach students math concepts that they will be able to apply directly in other subjects.

Welch volunteered to compile a spreadsheet to correlate concepts taught in both math and computational & mathematical engineering classes to their respective applications in other fields such as physics and economics. She has also been responsible for creating a survey to gain feedback from Math 51 students.

“We’ve had the physics department tell us what math concepts they use in their class, so the 50 series can focus more on what students need to learn,” Welch said.

“I think it’s really important for introductory math courses to be interesting and informative,” she added. “I don’t think anyone should stop pursuing an economics degree because they hated Math 51 so much.”


Contact Victor Yin at victor.yin15 ‘at’

An earlier version of this article underestimated the number of students who enroll in Math 51 each year.  The Daily regrets this error.

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