Texas A&M mathematicians Jill Zarestky and Wolfgang Bangerth are co-authors on a peer-reviewed paper submitted to the world's top conference in supercomputing.


Texas A&M University's College of Science is home to a number of dual-career couples, thanks in large part to unprecedented hiring opportunities under the university's previous faculty reinvestment program initiated by former Texas A&M president Dr. Robert M. Gates.

Next month, one of those couples will be jointly published -- educators and mathematicians Jill Zarestky and Wolfgang Bangerth, who are co-authors on a peer-reviewed paper submitted to the world's top conference in supercomputing.

Their paper, "Teaching High Performance Computing: Lessons from a flipped classroom, project-based course on finite element methods," will be included in the proceedings of the 2014 International Conference on High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis, to be held November 16-21 in New Orleans. The prestigious annual event, set to be keynoted by renowned physicist and best-selling author Brian Greene, brings together the most respected minds in all areas of supercomputing to debut the research and innovations that will open the door to new scientific and economic opportunities.

Zarestky is lead author on the paper, which details lessons learned from applying some of her proven elements of experiential learning to Bangerth's graduate-level class, MATH 676: Finite Element Methods in Scientific Computing, in which students apply theoretical material from previous courses to complete hands-on scientific computing projects related to their graduate research.

Zarestky and Bangerth describe a practitioner's approach to using non-traditional teaching strategies, such as reflective writing and journaling. The purpose is to connect course material, presented primarily through video lectures, to student projects and to create the opportunity for more direct interaction between the instructor and students.

"High performance computing is an area that requires students to acquire knowledge in a wide range of topics," said Bangerth, a member of the Texas A&M Department of Mathematics faculty since 2005. "At the same time, HPC is not a theoretical subject and is best learned through non-trivial projects. Teaching HPC therefore lives with the tension of having to cover many important but disconnected topics while simultaneously providing guidance and quality feedback on individual student projects."

With Zarestky's help, Bangerth videotaped his standard lecture material beforehand and required students to watch the videos outside of class, "flipping" the traditional approach. The change enabled him to devote class time to supporting students on their projects. Students, in turn, were required to keep a record of their work and progress via journals in which they also were asked to comment and reflect on their learning, resulting in more than 700 pages of student writing. In addition, the videos, available on YouTube, have been watched more than 20,000 times so far.

"There is a whole industry of flipped-class formats, even for high schools and freshman courses," Bangerth said. "Jill first got me thinking about this when she recorded lectures for MATH 141: Business Mathematics I, a class she taught for hundreds of non-STEM majors. I may have been the instructor in the class we report on in this paper, but it was Jill's ideas that made this happen. She was and is the driving force behind the innovations."

Zarestky, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development and an instructional assistant professor of mathematics, has taught a variety of courses in addition to MATH 141 since joining the Texas A&M faculty in 2007. Her solid background in both mathematics and education has allowed her to develop an outside-the-box, inspirational teaching approach. No stranger to applying new twists to old curricular standbys, Zarestky previously created and taught a popular first-semester course, "Arts & Crafts & Maths," exploring many important mathematical concepts through their relationship with art and a variety of craft and fiber art techniques.

"With the increasing use of technology in education, we have to stop and think about what the role of the faculty really is," Zarestky said. "What can we do that no technology can? And that was the basis for redesigning MATH 676. Wolfgang needed more time to interact with and give feedback to his students, to really guide their work and allow them to take advantage of his expertise.

"I had previously used many approaches in this direction, so we used technology as a means to support increased personal interaction and attention. If you read the students' statements about the class, you immediately see how their learning absolutely benefited from that strategy. Plus, for those of us who really love teaching, interaction with students is what it's all about. Win-win."

Bangerth has taught the course twice before integrating the new strategies, which he plans to use again when he next teaches the class in spring 2015. He admits it's a labor-intensive undertaking; he recorded 30 hours of classes for the flipped course's debut offering in 2013 and an additional five hours since then.

"Add time to get set up at the studio, and in particular preparing all of the lectures and slides, and it took me probably about 120 hours of work to get this going," Bangerth said. "So, three full weeks in addition to the actual time in the classroom."

While this approach may not be the best fit for all courses, Bangerth says it's certainly applicable to many other courses that are project-based, including undergraduate classes.

"It may not be the typical math class, but I think it's an option for senior project or capstone courses or any course in which an instructor would like students to be more actively engaged," Bangerth added. "It would be fun to do it again for another class."

Zarestky and Bangerth's strategies are aligned with the direction in which many new approaches to college-level education are moving. Zarestky says having a published practitioner's report that describes what worked and what didn't may encourage more instructional innovation, within and outside the supercomputing focus of the conference at which it will be presented.

To learn more about Zarestky and her approach to teaching, visit http://www.math.tamu.edu/~zarestky/.

For additional information about Bangerth's teaching and research on supercomputing and other areas, go to http://www.math.tamu.edu/~bangerth/.


Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu; Dr. Jill Zarestky, zarestky@tamu.edu; or Dr. Wolfgang Bangerth, bangerth@math.tamu.edu

Hutchins Shana

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