Calculus Reform: Catching the Wave?

By Peterson, Ivars | Science News, November 14, 1987 | Go to article overview

Calculus Reform: Catching the Wave?


Peterson, Ivars, Science News


Calculus Reform: Catching the Wave?

Calculus is big, important--and in trouble. This was one of the messages that came out of a recent conference at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., on the future of calculus education. The meeting attracted more than 600 mathematicians, educators and other professionals worried about the state of calculus teaching. The large attendance reflected a growing feeling that something ought to be done to reform the way calculus is taught (SN:4/5/86, p.220).

"We are not doing a good job in teaching what we are teaching,' says mathematician Ronald G. Douglas, physical sciences and mathematics dean at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "We now have an opportunity to do something about the trouble and to make [calculus] even more important.'

By almost any measure, the teaching of calculus is a huge enterprise. In any given semester, about 12,000 calculus instructors face more than 750,000 students in 7,500 high schools, colleges and universities. The number of students is double the figure of 20 years ago. These calculus courses represent almost $250 million in tuition and other fees, along with the millions invested by publishers in textbooks and other aids.

Furthermore, success in calculus is the gateway to professional careers, especially in the sciences and engineering. Some business schools and other college departments also require students to take a calculus course. For many students, calculus is the only college-level mathematics course they encounter. "A lot of people have a stake in calculus,' says Douglas. "That makes it that much harder to change it.'

But the need for changes is evident in the list of problems faced by current calculus programs: unwieldy textbooks, poor teaching, excessively large classes, low standards, simple-minded exams. Perhaps as many as a third of all students enrolled in calculus courses fail or withdraw, according to a recent survey by the Mathematical Association of America.

Although many mathematicians and educators agree that these problems exist, not everyone describes the situation as a crisis that clearly threatens the future viability of calculus courses. "There's no crisis in calculus,' says Leonard Gillman of the University of Texas in Austin. "We have a solid program, and people are learning some mathematics.' Two simple ways to improve the current state of calculus, he says, are by letting students use computers to practice routine problem-solving skills and by enforcing prerequisites so that students some into calculus classes properly prepared.

However, the poor quality of much calculus teaching, especially in university classes, is more difficult to deal with. "I have a lot of colleagues who are wedded to their research,' says Gillman, "and they really don't care much about calculus [teaching].' He adds, "There's nothing wrong with sprucing up the curriculum. We've been doing that for many years, but the teaching is getting worse. …

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