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September 12, 2013

Emporium focuses on developmental math

By Doug Vehovec

Another piece of the student success puzzle was put in place this fall when the Math Emporium at Cleveland State University opened. As a reflection of the university’s focus on student success, the Math Emporium is designed to improve skills among remedial and 100-level math students. The computerized facility utilizes the emporium model, supplanting traditional classroom learning with a sophisticated interactive digital math market.

The Math Emporium on the 2nd floor of the Michael Schwartz Library

The 120-station lab is located on the 2nd floor of Cleveland State’s Michael Schwartz Library. A staff of four full-time faculty, 10 part-time instructors and two graduate assistants teach courses. With several undergraduate tutors factored in, the lab provides a 1-to-35 instructor-student ratio.

A significant part of the instruction comes in the form of guidance through the lab’s software. The Math Emporium uses the MyLabsPlus system. This enhanced version of Pearson’s MyLabs software allows program scaling to manage students across multiple sections and courses.

The software works at an individual students’ level. Videos, exercises and tests gauge strengths and weaknesses and tailor the learning experience.

Trained faculty and staff coach students enrolled in basic algebra and applied algebra. Both classes meet in the lab for scheduled classes. Additionally, students in quantitative literacy, mathematical applications in the real world and math for business majors I & II can do online homework there.

“Students come in with idiosyncratic needs,” said Dr. John Holcomb, chair of the mathematics department. MyLabsPlus addresses those needs. “It allows them to move quickly through the stuff they know, so they don’t get bored.”

With a view overlooking the plaza between Rhodes Tower and the Student Center, the lab was designed with a comfortable aesthetic. A raised floor supports the lab, setting it apart from the surrounding library shelves. Warm colors including a vibrant focus wall and patterned help station give the area a lounge-like atmosphere around the hexagonal workstations. These pods are common to the emporium model.

The non-profit National Center for Academic Transformation, a leader in using technology to improve education at reduced institutional cost, provides guidelines for the model. These include replacing lectures with interactive software and personal assistance, learning materials that adapt to student needs, and staffing that allows direct response to students’ specific needs.

In 2010 the American Society for Engineering Education released an abstract on teaching a prerequisite mechanics course using the emporium model. The paper showed that restructuring the course using the model provided the promised reduction in cost and improvement in learning.

“It’s an idea that’s been used at universities throughout the country, so myself and Dr. Walsh were quite familiar with it,” Holcomb said. Dr. John Walsh is a Cleveland State mathematics professor. “When President Berkman initiated the strategic initiative grants last year, the math department saw it as an opportunity to look at this idea here at Cleveland State.

“Kent had put in an emporium in the last two or three years, so even locally we were aware of it. We wanted to do more for our developmental math sequence, and we also wanted to provide a space for students to work on their online homework.”

The price tag for the math emporium was $700,000. This figure is in the same ballpark as similar labs around the country. The budget included moving and storage for materials in the existing space. The task of clearing the space required more logistics – and cost – than one might expect, according to Holcomb. State regulations for cataloging and archiving, coordinating with its collection and transportation for storage added up to significant amounts.

A false floor had to be installed to house the electrical wiring necessary to run the lab. These plus the costs for computers, desks and décor comprised the bulk of the proposed budget.

“We worked very closely with Glenda Thornton, the library director,” Holcomb said. “She was very eager to work with us. She wants to embrace the digital revolution in learning spaces for the library. We worked together with her on the proposal.”

An alternate lab is available with additional computers for general use

The Math Emporium is open the same hours as the library. Student assistants are available Monday-Thursday until 6 p.m., Fridays until 3 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m. An official grand opening is planned, but no specific date has been decided yet.

“The Math Emporium is such an exciting concept, and there’s so much excitement on campus this semester,” said Glenda Thornton, director of the Michael Schwartz Library. “We want to find a date when we can really show it off. Not only to the students and the campus, but to the academic community as well.”