Nov. 22-Dec. 5, 2002
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John Faulkner Here and there

Solving calculus problemsCourse tele-taught to high schol students

By Fariss Samarrai

Most people probably have never heard of the method of Lagrange multipliers, but nine Albemarle High School students were frantically waving to their U.Va. professor to ask if they could use the short-cut calculating method on their next calculus test.

U.Va. mathematics professor John Faulkner couldn’t hear his high school students — he had turned off the audio to their classroom at the end of his lecture — but he saw on the video monitor at the back of his Cabell Hall classroom that they were trying to get his attention. He turned the audio on and they asked their question.
“Yes,” he said, “you can use the Lagrange multipliers method.”

“Yes!” the students said. “Sweet!”

These are no ordinary high school students, and this is no ordinary high school class. In fact, it’s a college class, Calculus III, taught by Faulkner to his 33 U.Va. students on Grounds, and broadcast live three times per week to nine highly achieving students at Albemarle High School.

“These students had completed all of the calculus classes at the high school, and they came to their senior year saying ‘What’s next?’” said Albemarle High School math teacher and department chair Carla Hunt. “We didn’t have an answer until this class was arranged with U.Va.”

The answer came from Steve Macko, U.Va. professor of environmental sciences, and father of one of the students in Hunt’s Albemarle class. Macko and others have used teleconferencing technology — in collaboration with U.Va.’s Telemedicine program — to broadcast U.Va. classes to students at universities in southern Africa. Knowing that his son Nikolas would have a big block of his school day empty without a math class, Macko got the idea to use teleducation technologies to bring Faulkner’s class to Albemarle.

“We tried to get Monticello High School involved with this too, but there was a scheduling conflict,” Macko said. “But we do have the capability to broadcast classes to three or four sites off Grounds. This is something we’d like to try in the future.”

U.Va.’s telemedicine program visually links Health System faculty and care providers with hospitals and clinics around the Commonwealth. It is a natural fit to use the same technology to broadcast U.Va. classes to school systems. But one big technical glitch came up for the Albemarle class: the high school did not have enough bandwidth on its Internet connection to accept a live class.

Macko and Eugene Sullivan, director of telemedicine, made a few phone calls. Sprint donated high-speed phone lines to the high school with monthly service. Publisher Brooks-Cole provided textbooks to Albemarle teachers and students, at the request of U.Va. math lecturer Daria Giffen.

“These things get done through the help, cooperation and enthusiasm of a lot of people,” Macko said.

So far, the class is a success.

“This is the best math class ever,” said Albemarle student Igor Rapinchuk. “No offense, Mrs. Hunt,” he said, looking at his teacher.

“These are highly motivated students,” Hunt said. “They love math.”

Tiffany Shih, an Albemarle student, said she is enjoying the “college experience” and the one-on-one help she and the other students get from Richelle Dietz, Faulkner’s teaching assistant and a Curry School student teacher in Hunt’s class.

This class is much more fast-paced and challenging” than a high school class, Shih said.

Faulkner said he wishes his sons had an opportunity to take a class like this when they were in high school. “These Albemarle students are roughly comparable in math ability to U.Va. students,” he said. “There is a real need for this kind of opportunity to bring the class to them.”

One disadvantage of a teleducation course, Faulkner said, is that students at the high school do not have easy access to his office hours. And he’s also noticed that the Albemarle students are somewhat reluctant to ask questions during class broadcasts.

“They did ask questions once when I visited them at the high school,” Faulkner said, “so I don’t know if the technology creates a barrier or if they simply don’t have questions during class.”

Hunt said the students seem to shy away from having the video camera focused on them individually. However, they are doing well on quizzes and exams.

Still, they had to make do without Lagrange multipliers on their most recent test.

“There was nothing on the test that allowed them to use the method,” Faulkner said.


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