Barbie Bungee Jumping: The Sequel

Ok, maybe a reboot instead of a sequel. It’s time for another round of Barbie Bungee Jumping, and this semester we are in a new location. We did our test jumps in our snazzy new room, and the grand finale off the Library stairs right in the College Center.

For those of you just joining us, this is an activity in which students build a mathematical model relating the number of rubber bands attached to Barbie’s feet to how far she drops. Students do some test jumps at smaller heights, then build a model to predict how many rubber bands it will take to get Barbie as close to the ground as possible without hitting her head when she jumps from the second floor landing.

Some of our test drops:

20161025_130450     20161025_130809


And the winning drop from the Library stairs:

And along the way, my students learned a lot about data collection, linear regression, and experimental error. Oh, and about technical difficulties:

The biggest thing I’ve learned from this: don’t be afraid to try something crazy in class! It just might work.

A Snazzy New Room

20160818_152204I am incredibly excited to be teaching this semester in one of our new Innovative Learning Labs. Funded by Title III, these rooms were designed by faculty to be modern, collaborative, versatile, and awesome. I am teaching in the larger of the two, with high ceilings and natural light. Six Apple TV’s line the walls with another on a mobile cart, and the professor or the students can share their computer screens with one or all of the TV’s. Versatile seating and tables can be rearranged in a million different ways. Color on the walls and in the upholstered furniture departs from the usual institutional classroom feel. Note the lack of a large board for lectures, and really, the lack of any natural front of the room. What? A math class with no front board? Yes, that is exactly what I’m doing.


I hope for this room to affect my class from two aspects:

  1. Super cool technology that I can harness in all kinds of creative ways
  2. An open, casual room that just feels different and has a subtle influence on the way students feel and collaborate

I must confess that I feel completely unqualified to harness the potential of this room, but I’m enthusiastic and willing to brainstorm with others. With the help of our Instructional Designer and other creative colleagues, I hope to use this opportunity to infuse my class with engaging activities and digital materials that enhance my students’ learning in meaningful ways. And with the sound-muffling baffles, it sort of looks like the inside of the old Tardis. And that’s just cool.

Barbie Bungee Jumping

One thing about Math Literacy that people don’t always think about: just changing the material or the emphasis doesn’t make it interesting. Yes, because of the team aspect and the content all being in context, my students are more engaged. But still, doing the same thing everyday, working math problems on paper all the time, becomes routine and boring. It’s really important to find hands-on activities to get them out of their seats.

Barbie BungeeSo, Barbie bungee jumping. I got the idea from an NCTM post. Tie linked rubber bands to Barbie’s feet. Do a few test runs with smaller amounts of rubber bands, create a line of best fit to model the drop distance, then use it to predict the number of rubber bands needed to drop Barbie from a second-story stair landing. The group that gets her closest to the floor without hitting her head wins. (Do post someone to warn passersby!)

We did this the afternoon of the last day before spring break. Not usually a good day for student engagement, but mine had a great time and learned about linear regression
along the way!

On the Necessity of a Good Online Homework System

One cannot overestimate the value of a good online homework system. In a math literacy classroom, we spend lots of time working in teams and developing concepts. But students do need some time on their own to make sure they have extracted and practiced the skills needed to carry out a solution to its completion, and to independently practice applying the concepts they have developed in class.

What we have found:

  1. Not all platforms are created equal. We started with Connect, which we found to be unstable, glitchy, and badly supported. Students can’t focus on the concepts when they can’t get the system to work.
  2. You cannot adapt a homework system designed for a traditional algebra class. We tried. Students had great difficulty seeing the connections between the classroom and the online work, because the questions and explanations were phrased so differently. It became a distraction instead of a learning tool.

So we switched to Connect Hosted by ALEKS (a completely different and much more stable platform), and built materials specifically for our course. IT HAS CHANGED MY LIFE. I do not exaggerate. I no longer want to throw my computer through a window. My students don’t come to my office completely confused because they don’t recognize how a question relates to what we did in class. They actually turn to the online homework for support, because the explanations help them understand both the basic skills and the bigger concepts we have developed in class. The online system is supporting their learning, and enhancing what we do in the class instead of feeling like an add-on. This integration has made the course more rewarding, for me and for them.

Revise, revise, revise

A critical piece to a major curriculum redesign is NOT to think you’ll get it all right on the first try. You MUST acknowledge that there will be need for revision. You must NOT throw out the baby with the bath water. There have been hiccups. But because we believe deeply in the original concept, we adjust rather than abandon.

We are using an assessment and research method called Action Research. There’s more to it than this, but the essence is that you take notes on how things go, then reflect back at the end of the semester and plan future revisions. This is not about quantitative data (though we collect that, too)–it’s about a qualitative assessment of how things are going.

And overall, they are going well. But as mentioned in a previous post, we ditched the 8-week half courses and dropped from 6 credit hours to 5. It has been a challenge to squish the class into one less credit hour, but at the same time this has forced us to revisit the priorities we had when designing the course. Some of those stray topics that work their way in don’t need to be there. In fact, they distract from the main ideas. Clarify your main goals, and stick to supporting them. You will have a better course in the end.

We’ve also decided to introduce a final exam into our Math Literacy courses. What? No final exam? Well, we had envisioned more of a portfolio-style final assessment at the end of the semester. And we do like that, so we’ve kept it. But in this instance, we have found that a more traditional final assessment might be warranted as well. The past couple of years we have finished each semester with a sense that students have not “pulled it all together” at the end. The last unit overwhelms them, and they don’t seem to end with a larger sense of the common threads running through the course. Our hope is that reviewing with their groups for a comprehensive final will help bring it all together, and provide a better assessment of what our students understand as they leave the course.

This is also our first semester with Math Literacy as a prerequisite to Intermediate Algebra. With Beginning Algebra gone, we wondered if we would see a difference in the student demographic. I really haven’t. There aren’t enough students at this level headed that way to make a huge difference in the class dynamic (for me, 2 in a class of 24), and I am seeing the same mix in ability that we see among all of our students. The bigger question will be next semester–do students coming out of Math Literacy perform the same in Intermediate Algebra as those who came out of Beginning Algebra? And in what ways does the Intermediate Algebra curriculum need to be adjusted because of the new prerequisite? I’ll keep you posted!

Designing a Math Course with Heart and Soul

What I love best about our new Math Literacy course is that I really feel like we designed it to have heart and soul, and I can’t say that about many other math courses. Let me give you some background on how and why we did it.


Our redesign at Parkland College started as an investigation into our poor retention rates in College Algebra and Precalculus. One aspect we wanted to address was that students seemed unprepared for these classes. We were looking at our Intermediate Algebra course to see what could be done to better prepare students for the rigor and pace of College Algebra.

As we started thinking about what topics to add to Intermediate Algebra and ways to pick up the pace, we became somewhat uncomfortable about how this might affect the students in Intermediate Algebra who are NOT headed to College Algebra. After all, Intermediate Algebra is also the prerequisite for our courses that students take if they just need a general education course: General Education Mathematics (our Liberal Arts Math course) and Intro to Statistics. The extra material and speed in Intermediate Algebra, intended specifically for students in STEM fields, might cause more of our non-STEM students to be unsuccessful. In fact, those non-STEM students are the majority. When we looked at the numbers, we realized that only 25% of our Intermediate Algebra students need College Algebra! That didn’t seem fair, considering the changes we wanted to make.

Right around this time, the idea of two developmental math tracks was gaining momentum in the Illinois Mathematics Association of Community Colleges (IMACC). Hey, we thought, this just might be the answer to our problems—if we split the non-STEM students off into another course, we can do everything we need to in Intermediate Algebra without feeling guilty.

Then we started thinking, hey—what if we took this opportunity to not only split the non-STEM students off, but to give them a course that is specifically designed for their needs? Their general education math courses are going to require application and written analysis, two things that are covered in Intermediate Algebra, but not nearly to the same extent as symbolic algebra. What if we designed a course that de-emphasized symbolic algebra, and instead focused on interesting parts of math that non-STEM students need? We had our skeptics—wouldn’t this just be watered-down course designed to help students pass? No! This became an important foundation of our plan: it can’t be easier, just different. What if we built a whole course around topics with real-life applications and analysis of results? What would that look like? Then we could also work in time to discuss success skills for both school and life, like persistence in the face of a difficult problem. And Mathematical Literacy was born…


To design the course, we used the curriculum development principles of Dee Fink (see Fink, L. Dee, 2003, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses). This is a backwards-design approach, in which the first thing you do is really think about what you want your students to be able to do when they finish the course, and what you want them to still remember in five years.

We began our course design with two main principles:

  1. If we can’t find a meaningful application, the topic doesn’t need to be there
  2. Students need to understand, not memorize, if we want them to really use this stuff

Eventually, these evolved into our underlying course philosophy: Learning about real math that has real applications, in an investigative format that supports students understanding.

So what does that look like? Following Fink’s approach, we started by defining our learning goals for the course in six categories: Foundational Knowledge, Application, Integration, Learning How to Learn, Human Dimension, and Caring. When students leave this course, what do we want them to be able to do?

We started with some Foundational Knowledge and Applications from algebra. We went through Beginning and Intermediate Algebra, keeping topics that had useful real-life applications, and throwing out the rest. We also asked ourselves what students might need in their gen-ed courses or their lives, skills that would make them more informed, productive people. We ended up with a lot of really interesting algebra applications, and added in some probability, data analysis, and technology skills.

For Integration, we wanted students to recognize the connections between the problems they are trying to solve and four threads: Number sense, Functions and modeling, Algebraic reasoning, and Real-world applications.

In terms of Learning How to Learn, students should be able to take initiative for their own progress in the course, make a study plan, manage their time outside of class, and learn how to work on difficult problems without getting frustrated and giving up.

For Human Dimension and Caring, we wanted students to see the importance of mathematics in society and culture, work together in teams, be engaged and interested, and value the use of mathematics as an analysis tool.

Next, how will you know students can do these things? How will you assess them? We determined that the kinds of things we want students to be able to do aren’t demonstrated on a traditional math exam. Assessing these things requires open-ended written responses, projects, etc.

Then we addressed pedagogy. If we need to assess with written explanations and projects, what types of learning activities will prepare students for that? We decided this could NOT be a lecture-based class. Students must work through the material, making sense of it instead of memorizing procedures. Group investigations seemed like the best way to do this, so students could work through the material, discuss it, get help in class, and make sense of the concepts. Any follow-up skill practice could happen outside of class, after they worked on the “hard stuff” in class.

We then followed Fink’s approach to outline course topics, how exactly the class would run on a typical day and over the course of a unit, and other details.

From my perspective as the instructor, this has made the class very different, very fun and intellectually stimulating, and very exhausting. I get to walk around and talk to my students. I have to be at the top of my game every day, because I have to think on my feet as students ask unexpected questions and pose tangential conjectures. I have so many conversations in which I say, “Well, that’s not really what I was looking for there, but that’s a really good point. Let’s think about that…” I end each class exhausted and content. Because I have real conversations with my students about really interesting stuff. Because I help my students learn that a little math knowledge can protect you from being taken advantage of. Because every day they make me think about something I hadn’t thought of before. Because I can really say, “Yes, you will use this someday. And if you don’t in your life or career, your neighbor probably will.” Because I know that even though we certainly haven’t perfected it yet, this course is meaningful, and something I can believe in: Relevant material, conceptual understanding, informed citizens.

Overlapping Tracks/Turning Dev Math Upside-Down

After our first full year of implementation and assessment, Parkland has decided to make some major revisions to its developmental math redesign. Yesterday we voted to make three major changes, effective Fall 2015 (pending Curriculum Committee approval). The third is the big one!

1. Get rid of our 8-week “half classes” and to return to 16-week courses.  Originally when we added the second track to our developmental math sequence, we also split all of our courses into half-courses.  Essentially this had no impact on the curriculum, simply turning what used to be a midterm grade into an actual grade on their transcript for the first half of the course.  The 8-week half-courses were a really good idea for several financial and pedagogical reasons. They allowed students to start over at midterm if they were not passing after the first half of the course, and to only have to repeat the second half of the course if they were successful in the first half but not the second.

Unfortunately, they just didn’t work out at our school. We were having trouble getting enough students in the off-cycle sections and had to cancel quite a few. When these sections did get enough students, they were a concentrated group of the weakest, least motivated students. This was a real challenge, because it helps so much to have some stronger students who can motivate and help their peers. In the regular, on-cycle sections, there was the concern that if not enough people got a C or higher in the first half, the second half might not have enough students to be offered. Yikes! So we have decided to take all of our half courses, both the Mathematical Literacy courses and our traditional algebra courses, and return them to 16-week formats.

2. Drop Mathematical Literacy from 6 credit hours to 5. We’ve found that students who place at the Intermediate Algebra level are choosing that instead of Math Literacy, even if they don’t need it, because it is less credit hours. If these students are not going on to College Algebra, this just doesn’t make sense for many reasons, and they are less likely to be successful. In addition, after offering the course for a year, we feel that we can do a good job of covering the material in less time.

3. Get rid of Beginning Algebra, have all students at that level go through Mathematical Literacy, and revise Intermediate Algebra. This brings us closer to the vision of the AMATYC New Life Project. Math Literacy can take students to their gen-ed math courses, and also serve as the prerequisite to a modified version of Intermediate Algebra. This new Intermediate Algebra course will begin with a fast review of some key Beginning Algebra topics that may not be covered in sufficient detail in Math Lit: one or two algebra topics, and a few by-hand procedures. Its exact content and format are going to be developed over the course of this year. So still two tracks, but they overlap. Our hope is that Math Literacy will offer ALL students a conceptual foundation that they were not getting in Beginning Algebra, and then our STEM-track students can pick up the symbolic manipulation that is specific to their needs when they take Intermediate Algebra.

In doing this, it feels like we are turning the philosophical basis of developmental math upside-down. In the past, the Beginning and Intermediate Algebra sequence was designed with the needs of STEM-bound students in mind, and then gen-ed bound students were required to take them. Now we are taking Math Literacy, a course specifically designed for students headed to gen-ed math, and having it also serve STEM-bound students. This turns developmental math upside-down, so to speak, and I am very interested to see how it plays out and whether our decision to rethink a century (or more!) of math instruction will serve the needs of students headed down the traditional algebra path.

Controlled Chaos?

I completely embrace the “controlled chaos” that is at the heart of this course. On an ideal day, if you walk past my room, you will hear a loud hum of conversation and will see students gesturing to each other, walking around to other tables, and writing on the board. They get off topic, and that’s ok. They have these incredible conversations that seem tangential, but end up leading back to the heart of the concept. Or they don’t lead back, but end up being really interesting in their own right. That’s an ideal day.

Then there are the not-so-ideal days. I have really been struggling with classroom management this semester. I have six groups of students, and three are functioning well. The other three are functioning at various levels of not great, with some of the group members working individually, and some not at all. I keep coming around and encouraging conversation, telling them they all need to be in the same place, and in one case trying to facilitate conflict management. But they’re fighting me every step of the way. Well, not fighting–they just ignore me. I threaten loss of participation points, give tips for working better as a group…nothing. Half the group gets done, the other half pretends to, and they all leave. They don’t check in with me–I just look up and they’re gone.

What is going on here? I’ve had a dud group here and there in the past, but this is really frustrating me. Clearly I have not made my expectations clear. Or I have, and they don’t care? I try to be easy-going to facilitate a conversational classroom, but apparently this semester that is backfiring. I’ll have to go in tomorrow with a new attitude, and set a more hard-working tone.

I love this course, and I love the group-based pedagogy. But I don’t want to act like things always go perfectly! I’ll keep you posted on my efforts.

One Year Down, Year Two Ahead

Holy cow! We’ve completed an entire year of implementation, and are working on year 2.

The Numbers

Year 1 stats for completion and success in next course were not as awesome as we had hoped, but we’re still analyzing those data. We’ve found it very difficult, this early in the process, to run an accurate comparison of Math Lit students to historical numbers for the old, traditional sequence. Not all the data seem complete and accurate. You’re comparing a mixed bag of all students (before) to only non-STEM, and presumably weaker, math students (now). You’re comparing one 16-week course to two 8-week courses, so not as many students complete the whole 16 weeks. The list goes on. So one thing we need to sort out this year is a clearer way of collecting and analyzing data that will tell us what we want to know.

The Technology

A major change we are making this year is to drop ALEKS and switch to McGraw-Hill Connect. The hope is that this will provide a more seamless experience for our students, with all their assignments being submitted in one place, organized in a way that is easier to navigate. Before, students submitted some things in Desire2Learn (our school’s LMS) and other things in ALEKS. They had two logins, and two systems to learn. Now, we can link Connect into Desire2Learn so that students have only one login. Once they are in Connect, they have a nice, organized home screen with links to the assignments for each lesson. It already seems to be making a difference. The learning curve was easier on students, and all my students are logged in and submitting assignments. Last year, I had students who took a week or more to get into ALEKS, and some never really started submitting online assignments regularly in EITHER system. The downside is that some of the content for our book is being developed as we go, so timelines can be uncertain. And Connect was not necessarily designed as a comprehensive LMS, so many of the grading features (and the gradebook itself) are clunky. Down the road, we hope for a closer integration with Desire2Learn that will embed Connect in a way that we can use the Desire2Learn gradebook seamlessly.

Constant Changes

Our instructors have been fabulous, jumping in and giving it a try. We’ve gotten lots of good ideas from them. But we’ve made somewhat significant changes to the course every semester so far (technology, schedules, etc.) and I’m starting to feel bad. And with Connect material rolling out as the semester progresses, we’re asking instructors to upload assignments and make corrections when we find mistakes. We’re also learning quirks of the system that require us to make adjustments. As co-coordinator, I feel like we’re making it difficult on the instructors, especially our adjuncts. I’m sure they just want to learn how things work with this course, and get used to it! But with a brand new project like this, you must be willing to make adjustments as you go. No one can expect everything to be perfect the first, second, or even third time around. I hope they all continue to patient and flexible as we continue to assess how things are going, and make revisions accordingly.

Wrapping up the first full-scale semester of Math Literacy

Whew!  I should have posted long before this, but this first semester has been a whirlwind.   Some background on our redesign (also see the About page):

The short version: Parkland College’s Mathematics Department undertook a developmental mathematics redesign project in the Fall of 2011, as a response to retention issues in College Algebra and Precalculus.  By the Fall of 2012, we had committed to a two-track design, keeping the traditional Beginning and Intermediate Algebra track (redesigned to be more rigorous) for students headed to College Algebra and Calculus, and creating a new Mathematical Literacy course (also rigorous, but with different content) for students headed to Gen Ed Statistics or Liberal Arts Mathematics.  In addition to adding a new track, we also split all of our courses into half-courses.  Essentially this has no impact on the curriculum, simply turning what used to be a midterm grade into an actual grade on their transcript for the first half of the course.  This allows students to start over at midterm if they are not passing after the first half of the course, and to only have to repeat the second half of the course if they are successful in the first half but not the second.

So, an update on our progress and challenges.  After running one pilot section in Fall 2012 and two in Spring 2013, this semester we went full-scale with 13 sections of Math Literacy, plus 5 restarts at midterm.  I am one of two course coordinators, tasked with getting the class up and running, and training new instructors.


  • This class is different, and students realize that right away
  • Students are working on math instead of falling asleep
  • We’re engaging in applications right from the start, every day, and students are realizing that they can do it
  • Speaking for myself, I feel revived and am loving teaching


  • Technology: Students and new instructors alike are expected to learn three different systems (ALEKS for skill homework, Desire2Learn for dropboxes, and Excel) from the first day.  While the Excel work starts small and builds, the other two systems each have their own learning curve.  Learning all three at once is a LOT.  We need a course management system that combines the functionality of ALEKS and Desire2Learn. We are hoping our textbook publisher can come through on this one.
  • Expectations: While students are fully informed by advisors that this class will be different, I’m not sure we’ve done the best job explaining WHY.  We need to be more transparent about our rationale for the pedagogy, the need to engage and learn how to learn, and the reasoning behind each of the assignments.  Students are not seeing how the skills, applications, technology, and reflections pieces all contribute important aspects to the learning process.
  • Support for part-time adjuncts: Some of the above falls on the coordinators.  I’m not sure we have done the best job of communicating all the rationale to our new instructors, so that they can pass that along to their students and teach confidently.  We will be trying to improve a lot in this area, now that the nuts and bolts have been dealt with this first semester.

We have learned a lot, and I am excited to continue this work next semester.

Bringing mathematical literacy to life

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