For some students, mastery of advanced mathematical subjects like calculus comes as second-nature as tying their shoes. For others, this mish-mashed set of concepts represents a collective puzzle so abstract, it might as well be an indecipherable alien language.

The Department of Mathematics at Texas A&M University is helping to minimize the mystery for incoming Aggie freshmen who either need a crash course or simply want extra practice before taking on Calculus 1 with the Personalized Precalculus Program (PPP), an innovative online short course specifically designed to address students' personal weaknesses in the subject before they ever set foot in a Texas A&M classroom.

The interactive course was created by Dr. G. Donald Allen, associate department head and director of the Center for Technology-Mediated Instruction in Mathematics, to improve success rates in Calculus 1 by targeting prospective students who are deemed at-risk for poor performance in the course based on their scores on the university-required Mathematics Placement Exam (MPE), which they take as seniors in high school. Since being introduced in 2010, the National Science Foundation-funded program has evolved into an efficient and uniquely high-tech alternative to beginning college enrolled in a precalculus course and, in effect, a semester behind.

"We know that proper preparation is a key determining factor between collegiate success and failure, and that for whatever reason, some students aren't getting it in high school," Allen says. "We had a Mathematics Placement Exam for several years, and it occurred to me one day that the people not doing as well as we'd like on it could be remediated at home."

When prospective students take the MPE, the 33-question, non-calculator exam identifies not only which mathematics class is best-suited for them, but also whether or not they are lacking in high-school-level mathematics skills. Those scoring within the 16-to-21 range are invited to sharpen their skills through the PPP.

What differentiates the six-week PPP from a typical mathematics class is its specific individualization, which is personalized for the needs of each participant and available in eight different sessions throughout the summer. Students begin by completing chapter quizzes, the results of which are summarized in a histogram that identifies their key focus concepts. From there, they are issued a personalized study plan, which features assignments they are able to complete at their convenience using the web-based homework system WebAssign. The overall objective is to score 90 percent or higher on each concept. All of the material is designed by Texas A&M mathematics faculty who teach calculus and tailored after the textbook, PreCalculus, written by mathematics professor Dr. Michael Stecher along with several departmental colleagues.

Each student also is assigned a personal, online tutor to guide them throughout the program and to answer any questions. In addition to working individually on their assignments, the students meet both one-on-one and in small groups with their tutors three-to-four times a week using a state-of-the-art Web conferencing platform called Saba Centra. The software simulates a virtual classroom -- an interactive environment in which students are able to talk with their tutors via live video streams, ask questions and use an online whiteboard to solve mathematics problems in real time.

A handful of high school and junior college teachers from around the state are selected to serve as PPP tutors, and they remain on-call for the students for the full extent of the program's run. These tutors receive stipends for participating and potentially could serve as links to future students on their campus who may one day be interested in not only enrolling in Texas A&M, but also utilizing the PPP.

"We prefer to hire high school teachers with years of experience teaching calculus and precalculus, as well as exemplary college instructors who preferably have high-school teaching experience," Allen says. "The reason is that the PPP student is in a transition period, and having an instructor that knows how they think and is also aware of the nature and rigor of collegiate mathematics courses will give the student the type of beneficial learning experience that should transfer to campus in the fall."

One particular PPP benefit that may be even more appealing -- if not to students, then likely to their parents -- is the program's reasonable cost: $100 for the entire six-week curriculum. Allen says the affordable price is by design and intended to be a cheaper alternative to summer school that still generates enough income to be as self-sufficient as possible.

"At $100 to take the course, this is our attempt to deliver an inexpensive project that is sustainable," Allen adds. "It will save students huge money but still bring in some funding support for the department."

The program's debut last summer resulted in significant response, drawing in 78 interested students during registration. One of those students, sophomore computer science major Taylor Kempisty, says even though he excelled in his high school's mathematics program, he was concerned that he still had not been adequately prepared for college calculus. Rather than face the uncertainty of a calculus course, Kempisty opted for the PPP and is thankful he did.

"If you are in the engineering department, obviously the most important subject is going to be mathematics, and in a subject like mathematics, a strong foundation is required to succeed in the upper level courses," he says.

Freshman nuclear engineering major Michael Stephens also participated in the inaugural PPP and was immediately taken with the convenience of the program and the ability to work at his own pace.

"I liked how connected it was; you could do your lessons anywhere," he says. "I took a laptop on my family vacation and worked on them. I also liked Centra because it's just like being in a real classroom. You can ask questions, and it can be one-on-one."

The idea of a PPP originated in 2007 from discussions between Allen and several other faculty members that arose out of their collective concern about the increasing number of students having to retake calculus. A year later, Allen submitted a proposal to the NSF, which awarded the department a five-year, $1.9 million grant through its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) to launch the project. The program's initial success has since caught the attention of fellow Texas A&M University System members Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and West Texas A&M University, the latter of which has already submitted a grant proposal to fund a similar program.

If everything goes according to plan, the PPP will become a permanent addition to the department. Jennifer Whitfield, a senior lecturer of mathematics and PPP director, says hopes are high that the program will continue attracting statewide and national attention -- from peer institutions and funding agencies but more so from the prospective students it is designed to help.

"We'd like it to be successful and to really show the student success rate in Calculus 1 so it can stay on as a program," Whitfield says. "We'd even like to do a similar model for the liberal arts program and MATH 142 [required calculus course for all liberal arts majors] somewhere down the road."

Registration is open for the four remaining sessions available this summer. To see the complete schedule or learn more about the Personalized Precalculus Program, visit http://nsfstep.math.tamu.edu/.


Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or cjarvis@science.tamu.edu or Dr. G. Donald Allen, (979) 845-7950 or dallen@math.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

  • Interactive Learning

    The Texas A&M Department of Mathematics relies on the Web conferencing platform Saba Centra to help put the personal in its National Science Foundation-funded Personalized Precalculus Program (PPP). The novel software simulates a virtual classroom that enables students to interact in real time in variety of ways, from basic introductions (above) to problem-solving (below), both with their tutors and with each other.

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