Prestigious Spencer Grant to Benefit Pre-calculus Course, Student Research Journal

MERCED — A collaborative proposal by three individuals from UC Merced has won a prestigious $25,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation's Forum for Excellence in Higher Education. Robert Ochsner, Bruce Birkett and Professor Arnold Kim will use the funds to further improve UC Merced's pre-calculus course and to start up a new, electronic journal of student research.

"Receiving funding from the Forum for Excellence in Higher Education is a major triumph for a public university," said Dean of Natural Sciences Maria Pallavicini. "All three collaborators deserve congratulations for their successful proposal and their insightful plans to facilitate academic success at UC Merced."

"Innovative practices in writing and mathematics are two key areas of focus for UC Merced's educational mission," said Kim, explaining the plans he and his colleagues have made. "UC Merced is the only public institution in this forum, participating alongside Harvard, Duke and other prestigious higher education institutions."

Kim, a professor in the School of Natural Sciences, led the mathematics portion of the proposal along with science and math educational consultant Bruce Birkett. They plan to make improvements to UC Merced's pre-calculus course, Math 5, including small classes, reduced lecturing, more active learning, group work, and incorporation of technology. They will then track and evaluate the results of these changes — an important requirement for the Spencer Foundation's program.

The team hopes to change pre-calc from its traditional role as a weed-out course to a fertile ground for future innovators. "At UC Merced, all science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or 'STEM' — majors require calculus," Birkett explained. "Therefore, pre-calc is a potential barrier preventing students from entering those fields. We believe that helping students succeed in this course will put them on a trajectory toward completing a STEM major."

Some of the changes Kim and Birkett plan for Math 5 are already being implemented this semester, and Birkett says they believe the percentage of students succeeding in the course will increase from about 50% — a typical success rate for pre-calculus courses nationwide — to about 80%, based on mid-semester grades.

To evaluate the long-term effects of their changes, Kim and Birkett plan to track whether students continue in STEM majors and how they do on the calculus gateway exam that UC Merced will begin requiring next semester.

For the writing portion of the grant, Ochsner, the director of UC Merced's writing program, plans to found an electronically-published journal of student research. Students will submit papers for the journal based on their coursework or their independent interests, and a student editorial group will prepare them for publication. A collaborative committee including students and faculty members will select top papers to receive Awards for Excellence in Writing. Ochsner hopes the journal will then become a supplementary text for UC Merced courses.

"Students who submit material for review will have the opportunity to be recognized as excellent writers and researchers," Ochsner said. "This has potential consequences for their admission to graduate school or for their future employment."

The journal will also benefit the communications and teamwork skills of its student editors, Ochsner added. "Overall, students will benefit by writing and editing for a purpose and audience that transcends the classroom," he said.

The Forum for Excellence in Higher Education, which awarded the grant funded by the Spencer Foundation, was founded by Harvard professor Richard Light and Spencer Foundation president Michael McPherson. Its goals include helping institutions retain contributions from individual professors after they leave the institution, sustaining improvements in a broad range of types of institutions of higher education, fostering collaboration among institutions, and building innovations with measurably successful outcomes into the fabric of campus life in order to help students maximize the quality and value of their time at college. Participants in the forum are Amherst, Bowdoin, Davidson, Duke, Georgetown, Haverford, Harvard, M.I.T., Macalaster, Middlebury, Olin, UC Merced, Wellesley and Williams. Dean Kenji Hakuta of the UC Merced School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts sits on the board of the Spencer Foundation.

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