Leaders in the Virginia Tech College of Science laid out plans before the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors earlier this month for a series of enhancements intended to again make the university a leader in undergraduate mathematics education.

The changes initially will take place in courses offered in the Math Emporium, former College of Science Interim Dean Ron Fricker and Trish Hammer, associate dean for faculty affairs and graduate studies, told the Board of Visitors.

Though all the changes are not yet in place, the goal is to offer students more flexibility in how to learn math. The self-paced, instructor-assisted format at the Math Emporium works well for some students, but others are more successful in traditional, instructor-led classroom learning.

“People learn differently,” Fricker said, “and Virginia Tech students will have the opportunity now to choose the learning style in which they are most successful.”

Mathematics education affects nearly all students who come to Virginia Tech. More than 98 percent of students take at least one class in the College of Science, due to requirements that students in engineering, business, architecture, and other majors have in foundational courses such as mathematics and chemistry.

“Mathematics education is so big that we have to move carefully,” said Hammer, who obtained her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Virginia Tech in mathematics. “It’s important that we move strategically and thoughtfully and get this right.”

Math courses account for an astonishing one of every 16 credit hours taught at Virginia Tech. When the Math Emporium opened more than two decades ago, it was not only lauded as a leading edge of mathematics education, but the Virginia Tech model was adopted at scores of universities across the country. The method of self-paced math courses in large rooms with hundreds of students at computers and roving instructors is now known far and wide as “the emporium model.”

But through the years, detractors emerged, calling it “large and impersonal.” The Emporium may have been innovative in its heyday, but Hammer said now is the time to re-fashion a new model based on everything  learned during the past two-plus decades. The college also will incorporate teaching method innovations that mathematics instructors adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hammer said.

“Imagine a ‘studio day’ in your introductory math course,” Hammer said. “It will be very interactive. It will have a flavor of the Math Emporium, with instructors walking around and students able to work independently then get help when they need it.

“Our goal is a cutting-edge blend of the two models.”

The timing is still uncertain, but the alterations to math education at Virginia Tech also will lead to a shift away from the well-known Math Emporium location in University Mall. That’s where, 25 years ago, Virginia Tech spent $2 million to renovate an old Rose’s department store into the Emporium.

Hammer and Fricker also told the Board of Visitors that the adaptations are not simply an abandonment of Emporium-style teaching and a switch back to the traditional model — essentially, a lecture three days a week and recitation on a fourth day.

The changes will entail a smaller physical space on campus that will facilitate a more expansive virtual experience — but only for those who choose that path.

Kevin Pitts, who took over as College of Science dean on June 13, said the changes would put mathematics education at Virginia Tech on a path that demonstrates its commitment to finding the best ways to educate today’s students.

“We envision this is headed toward a beautiful blend of traditional math education, enhanced by what has worked well in the Emporium,” Pitts said. “It’s not about just scaling down the Emporium; it’s more about moving to an exciting, cutting-edge future.”

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