Math department recalculates for fall success

22nd September 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–How has the mathematics department adapted to the pandemic?

Let us count the ways.

  • The math lab, run by Senior Lecturer Cindy Light, has gone virtual, with free online tutoring via Zoom–extra equipment was purchased to enable student tutors to help their peers without leaving their safe spaces.
  • Instructors Mildred Vernia and April Robinson completed the ILTE 2020 summer cohort training for online teaching, investing over 100 hours in order to meet their students’ virtual learning needs.
  • Faculty including Professor Dr. Chris Lang and Assistant Professor Dr. Thomas Horine successfully adapted tools such as Microsoft Surface Pro and Caltesia to replicate their slides and lecture experience in the online environment.

These are just a few of the changes introduced by the math department as faculty members have sought to deliver high-impact instruction without being able to benefit from the traditional face-to-face classroom setting.

The math department has also collaborated with partners across campus to master the moment. Incoming freshmen benefited from a summer course in Canvas skills launched by Vernia, Dean of Student Success Donna Dahlgren, Writing Center Director Leigh Ann Meyer, and Dean of Student Life Seuth Chaleunphonh.

Through this program, made possible by the Summer 2020 Covid-19 Learning Support Grant through Indiana Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), students were able to explore Canvas without the pressure of grades. Thirty-four students interacted with instructors and student peer helpers. They were also able to meet independently with the peer helpers about the class and get help regarding their questions about IU Southeast.

The incoming freshmen were not required to take the ALEKS math placement test, saving them some money while providing tutoring and an opportunity to meet with Vernia to learn more about the math program at IU Southeast.

Some of the most significant changes have been in the area of supplemental instruction (SI) offered by the Student Success Center (SSC) in close consultation with math faculty.

Ordinarily, a select team of SI leaders from the student body–identified and recruited by math faculty and trained by SSC staff–help classes move through the material, providing support to those struggling with certain concepts or needing more general assistance.

During Covid, this service has been rebooted and beefed up to offer additional support.

According to SSC Director Ryan Norwood, some 25 student SI leaders are covering about 38 course sections. Many of them are shouldering multiple sections. The numbers for math are the highest ever.

“Going into fall 2020, pre-pandemic, we had been discussing ways that could potentially lead to better student success, persistence, and retention,” Norwood said.

As a result of these conversations, non-STEM majors were allowed to enroll in their required math course without having to take the ALEKS placement test or M101 (Topics in Algebra 4). Furthermore, SI would be provided for all affected lower-level math courses (M110, A118, M118, and M129) and attendance became a mandatory requirement for all students. This concept assumed face-to-face classes, but has not been altered during the pandemic. If anything, the SSC has doubled down on its plan, as supplemental support has become more important than ever.

At the same time, Norwood has responded to the uncertainty of the current situation with an emphasis on flexibility and creativity, giving more responsibility to SI leaders to design strategies that work for their students.

“My approach to this semester, since it is unlike anything we have ever experienced, runs parallel to my basic guiding philosophy of learning: It’s best to explore a problem than to provide a solution,” Norwood said. “This semester, while I, and their professors, might lead the expedition, the SI leaders are encouraged to explore and make discoveries along the way.”

Yiliang Lu, a senior and Armed Forces veteran originally from Suzhu, China, majoring in computer science, has taken this challenge to heart in his work as an SI leader.

Like all other instructors, Lu has shifted the bulk of learning to Zoom. But to keep students coming back, he has developed other methods, including the use of IU email and Canvas, weekly math worksheets, multimedia  problem solutions including animation and recorded videos, and other online collaboration platforms.

For example, he has set up a workspace on, an online business collaboration tool similar to Microsoft Teams. Here he invites students to share and exchange problems and solutions asynchronously.

“A student can post a question outside of normal SI Zoom meeting time, and I try my best to answer the question within 24 hours,” Lu said. “Because of the rich media capabilities, I can post solutions using audio and video recordings, animated images, and rich text formatting, which is especially useful when creating a math formula.”

Lu explained that the rich media capabilities allow all students to view entire posted conversations, which in turn enables him to encourage them to help one another.

“I feel the asynchronous nature and informal setting can relax the students and allow more student participation,” Lu said.

Lu’s fellow SI leader Hannah Ray is a junior from Borden, Indiana, majoring in elementary education, with a minor in math. Like Lu she has had to think on her feet, and make changes to make sure students are fully participating in the Zoom environment. In this she is grateful for the increased support of faculty and the experimental tone set by Norwood and the SSC community.

“We have had many helpful brainstorming sessions with lots of great ideas on how to keep all of our students engaged,” Ray said. “It shows me how much the program cares.”

The changes say a lot about the culture in the math department, a true corps that, even before the closures forced by the pandemic, was moving as a group toward expanding virtual modalities.

Vernia credits Phillip Miller, senior lecturer, and Rose Riehm, lecturer, with paving the way for online teaching some years ago. Then, as a group, the faculty decided to obtain funding for cameras and microphones to deliver high-quality videos. As the pandemic unfolded, resident faculty members began including adjuncts into their Zoom meetings to help them adapt to teaching online.

“We work well as a team,” Vernia said. “We all contribute our fair share.” 

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the all-hands-on-deck spirit of the department than Vernia’s reminiscence of another time of crisis.

“I remember a Monday years ago when I came to school not feeling well,” Vernia recalled. “At the end of the day, I realized I was headed to the hospital. Kim Bonacci [now senior lecturer in mathematics] came into my office and called the troops together. Each faculty member took a test to proctor and Kim drove me to the hospital herself. On Friday, the group reconvened at my house, delivered the tests to be graded, shared boxed lunches, and ascertained if I required any other assistance.”

Homepage photo of fractal spiral by ladyeleanor from Pixabay.

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