Grant funding will increase calculus courses to support engineering student success

University calculus courses can often have a negative and inequitable impact on student success in STEM, as these challenging but foundational courses can act as a barrier to success for students from communities that have historically been underrepresented in these fields. A state-funded seed grant California Learning Lab will be used to help close this equity gap in calculus courses and increase engineering student retention at UC Santa Cruz.

Teaching Professors Frank Bäuerle and Pedro Morales-Almazan (Department of Mathematics, Division of Physical and Biological Sciences), will collaborate with Associate Professor Marcella Gomez (Department of Applied Mathematics, Baskin School of Engineering) to add context to engineering applications calculus in Math 19A (Calculus for Science, Engineering, and Mathematics), a required course for engineering, mathematics, and physics students typically taken in first year.

They will incorporate related elements of active learning into the discussion sections through an equal partnership with Academic Excellence (ACE) Susanna Honig, Program Director, and Jody Greene, Director of the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning (CITL), who have deep expertise in evidence-based pedagogy.

“As instructors, our goal should be to level the playing field and ensure that all students have equal access to progress and continue in the major of their choice,” Gomez said. “[These changes will] establish this expectation that we are fully confident that they will continue in the STEM major and as such we prepare them.

The faculty hopes to make the calculus classroom better facilitate learning preparation for engineering courses by mapping what they learn in the lecture to content that may appear in later classes. Additionally, they will work with CAOT staff to create materials and projects that encourage active learning and identify techniques that will best support student success. ACE Learning Skills Advisors, who have experience with the pedagogy, content and faculty of these courses, will work with graduate student teaching assistants to supplement the instruction provided in the sections of discussion.

“Providing opportunities to engage and using tools that we know can have a positive impact just makes sense,” Bäuerle said. “There’s science behind it, there’s pedagogy behind it that clearly shows this is a proven strategy.”

By increasing skills and confidence in these calculus courses, Gomez says students can build their own scientific identity and develop a sense of belonging to engineering disciplines, which is essential for long-term success.

“[We want] make them feel like they’re not just a daughter or a sister, but they’re also a scientist, they’re also an engineer,” Gomez said.

The California Learning Lab, which provided the $100,000 grant, is funding an initiative to close the computational equity gap at UCs, state universities, and community colleges across the state. Materials created by UCSC researchers will be open source for other educators to learn from for their own courses.

This is one of many on-campus efforts to redesign math courses with student success in mind. Bäuerle hopes this project can help ensure that the computational courses offered at UCSC meet the needs of engineering students as well as students on campus for whom computation plays a fundamental role in their fields.

“This project is exciting because it combines proven strategies to help support student learning and establish collaboration with engineering faculty,” Bäuerle said. “We hope to use this project as a template for adding contextualized examples for engineering and other subjects, as well as ACE integration into other courses.”

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