Spectrum Logo
A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Math Emporium open house emphasizes tech literacy

By Sally Harris and Sandy Broughton

Harris Miller, guest speaker at the official open house of Virginia Tech's Mathematics Emporium on January 21, told the gathering such undertakings are crucial to the future of business, which will depend highly on technological literacy.

Virginia Tech hosted the Math Emporium open house after one semester's use of the facility. Indications from the first semester are that students using its learning options score half a grade higher than those learning mathematics the traditional way.

In welcoming guests, Robert Olin, chair of the mathematics department in the College of Arts and Sciences and one of the driving forces behind the Math Emporium, said, "It's an exciting time to be a part of our faculty. Our faculty members are very energetic about new possibilities."

The facility opened last August, offering two courses involving students from Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Business. This semester, the emporium is used by more than 6,000 students in 10 mathematics classes involving students from all the colleges in the university, plus students who use the emporium to work on other classes. The university spent more than $1 million to remodel and equip the building in University Mall with 250 computers arranged in study pods of six. An additional 250 computer work stations and other mathematics courses serving students throughout the university will be introduced in the future.

Students can take advantage of diagnostic quizzes, an electronic hyperlinked textbook and interactive, self-paced tutorials. According to Chris Beattie, professor of mathematics, there also are "armies of tutors, GTA's and faculty members" in the emporium to give students personal help when they do not understand the tutorials or quizzes. In that way, Beattie said, the risk for alienation of students through computer-driven instruction is turned, instead, into an opportunity to spot and correct problems before they become critical.

The project was proposed in the spring of 1997 and implemented in the fall of that same year. "In my 35 years at Virginia Tech, I've never seen anything move this quickly and this well," said President Paul Torgersen of the 50,000-square-foot facility. "A project like this is almost impossible to complete in a short time sequence. I think I'll put Bob Olin in charge of all the university building projects," Torgersen joked.

Guest speaker Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), stressed the importance of integrating technology into the curriculum to prepare students for a workplace in which technology is fundamental to the way business is conducted.

"Information technology is ubiquitous," Miller told the gathering of about 150 Tech faculty and staff members, administrators, and local media. "It is as essential to our society as the telephone or the electrical system. We need to communicate to students that this is an exciting field to be in-and a lucrative one."

The ITAA recently released a study done with Virginia Tech that showed that 1.3 million new information-technology jobs will be created during the next year. The ITAA/Virginia Tech study found that the current "core" information-technology (IT) workforce is 3,354,000, with approximately 10-11 percent (or 346,000) positions open today, Miller said. The study projects 188,000 programmer vacancies, 92,000 systems-analyst vacancies, and 66,000 computer-engineer vacancies.

"The digital revolution is here," Torgersen said in reference to the study, which was released at a conference at Berkeley. "The future economic competitiveness of the nation is dependent on maintaining a qualified flow of information-technology workers."

Terry Wildman, director of the Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and chair of the Cross-Cutting Initiative on Learning Communities, said, "The Math Emporium is one example of how thinking creatively about course delivery can enhance student understanding of a subject and make the learning more inviting. Simply put, people learn better when they work together," Wildman said. "The Math Emporium gives students in large introductory courses a way of connecting to the subject, to the instructors, and to each other in a way that is new and exciting."

Jeff Frykholm, a faculty member in mathematics education in the College of Human Resources and Education, is also making use of the math emporium, teaching four math-education classes to about 100 students in the facility. "The technology allows us to prepare future math teachers for what they will face in the classroom and give them an understanding of the possibilities for their own students. It also has pedagogical implications. Technology is redefining how and what we teach."

The Mathematics Emporium open house was also an opportunity to showcase Virginia Tech's innovation in the area of incorporating new teaching and learning technologies into the curriculum. Provost Peggy Meszaros presented the first annual Xcaliber Awards, established to honor outstanding contributions to courseware development using technology. "The concept of discovery permeates all aspects of our endeavors here at Tech," Meszaros said. "The Xcaliber Award represents excellence and high-calibre achievement in instructional technology."

Valerie G. Hardcastle, assistant professor of philosophy, received the 1998 XCaliber Award for her course Philosophy 1204-Knowledge and Reality, which uses an innovative course web site, chat rooms, and virtual classroom concepts. She received a $2,000 stipend and an award plaque.

The XCaliber Lifetime Achievement Award went to Virgil A. Cook, associate professor of English, for his pioneering efforts in integrating technology into the classroom. His award carried a $500 stipend.

Certificates of recognition went to the following areas: biology on-line, general biology, insects and society, crop and environmental sciences, and the virtual art gallery.