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College of Sciences Begins Assault on Math-Related Weaknesses That Hold Students Back

Faced with Old Dominion University's largest enrollment ever in mathematics and the sciences, the dean of the College of Sciences, Chris Platsoucas, has announced an all-out assault on the math-related phobias and failures that afflict college students.

Learning aids ranging from old-fashioned recitations to new-fangled online tutoring will be offered beginning this fall by the new Math and Science Resource Center. Platsoucas said the center's goals are to increase student retention for the university as a whole, as well as to boost the percentage of four-year math and science majors who graduate with bachelor of science degrees.

The center is part of an overall math and science retention plan ordered by Platsoucas that will include refresher courses offered to new students before they arrive on campus and assessment examinations offered soon after they arrive.

ODU's experience in recent years reflects a national trend: Nearly half of the students who begin college as science and math majors switch to other majors within the first two years of their studies. Furthermore, math-related difficulties are a primary cause at ODU-and nationwide-for an attrition rate that claims more than two out of every 10 students who start a school year.

With overall ODU enrollment topping 23,000 for the first time this fall, the College of Sciences reports that the student credit hours it will be teaching are up by 29 percent to 58,080 over fall 2007. The number of freshmen who have declared a major in math or sciences jumped a whopping 41 percent to 506.

"We are always very interested in giving our math and science students every possible means to succeed," said Platsoucas, who became the sciences dean at ODU in 2007. "With this major increase in enrollment, our mission becomes more critical and our efforts to support these students must be greater than ever before."

John R. Broderick, acting president of ODU, praised Platsoucas' leadership in this initiative. "The new resource center is a creative addition to a long-standing and multipronged initiative at this university to keep students on track and successful in their chosen courses of study," he said.

Broderick added that math skills are important, not only for students in the College of Sciences, but also for those in many other degree programs of ODU's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, College of Business and Public Administration, College of Health Sciences, Darden College of Education and College of Arts and Letters.

Platsoucas has appointed his college's assistant dean, Terri Mathews, as director of the Math and Science Resource Center. Mark Dorrepaal, professor and chair of the college's Department of Mathematics and Statistics, will be the center's associate director for mathematics, and Patricia Pleban, associate professor and assistant chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, will be the center's associate director for chemistry.

The center will launch with math and chemistry as the focus, but learning support in the other sciences will be added later, according to Mathews. Initial retention efforts will focus on Mathematics 102, which has a fall 2008 enrollment of more than 1,700 students; Mathematics 162, with an enrollment of 858; Chemistry 101N, enrollment 429; and Chemistry 115N, enrollment 668.

Other than math and chemistry, the college has departments in biological sciences, physics, computer science, psychology, and ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences.

Mathews said approximately 30 faculty members, graduate students and outstanding achievers among upperclassman majors in math and chemistry have been recruited to provide the new center's services. Some students who are having difficulties in certain classes will be referred to the center by faculty members, while others only will be encouraged to get extra help. But Mathews said any student in math or chemistry who wants assistance will be accommodated.

Recitations, the auxiliary instruction often provided by graduate instructors to augment the large-class lectures of faculty members, is a central component of Platsoucas' student retention plan. "Recitations are a classic educational practice," Platsoucas said. "The faculty member teaches concepts. Then, in the recitations, students explore those concepts in more depth and discover how to apply them to solve complex problems."

Other parts of the center's program will include walk-in tutoring, available for as many hours each week as staffing will allow. For students who cannot take advantage of personal tutoring, the center has purchased an online tutoring program available 24 hours a day. "Even if it's the wee hours of the morning, a student who is having difficulty understanding something can always get help," Platsoucas said.

The overall retention plan also will enforce mandatory class attendance, prescribe intrusive advising and administer a "grade alert" early-warning system for struggling students.

Broderick noted that the university's overall student retention initiative over the past decade has borne fruit, with the rate moving up from 71.8 percent in 1998 to 77.2 percent in 2005. "Remarkably, this progress has come while the university was increasing its enrollment of students from under-represented populations," the acting president said. "For example, nearly one-fourth of our freshmen and transfer students this year are the first member of their families to attend college. About 30 percent come from low-income families and are more likely to have to work to support themselves while in school. Many of us can only imagine the obstacles to success that these students face, and we owe it to them to support their efforts to learn and to realize their career goals."

Together with the new center, Platsoucas has announced a new student recruitment strategy that will focus on successful undergraduate applicants who have scored well on the SATs. Every effort will be made, he said, to make sure these students matriculate. These measures will include communications from current ODU students and invitations to experience campus life and visit the classes and laboratories of the College of Sciences.

The dean also is starting a professional development program for high school and middle school teachers, which is designed to improve the skills of incoming students by enriching the educational backgrounds of their teachers. Most of the university's applicants attend schools near the main campus or in other areas of Virginia close to an ODU off-campus center or other sites served by ODU's Teletechnet distance learning network. Teachers will be offered a certificate program requiring four graduate courses in math, chemistry, physics, biology, computer science or earth science. Those credits can also apply toward a master's degree.

The teaching initiative complements another of Platsoucas' main goals, and that is to increase external support of his faculty's research. "To move us toward this goal, we will be recruiting young, promising researchers as well as established faculty members from other institutions with national recognition in their fields and extensive research grant support," he explained.

This article was posted on: September 3, 2008

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