Google “Math 114 UPenn” and you’ll find yourself on a page that can be summed up in one word: outdated.
Blurry headers show a low-resolution picture of Isaac Newton and a Home button that looks like it would have felt antiquated 10 years ago. The link to the syllabus contains the note: “New for Fall 2013.”
Penn professor Robert Ghrist, one of the professors teaching Math 114, or Calculus II, was quick to agree that the site needs work.
“I know, right?” he said, rolling his eyes.
According to Ghrist, the Math Department is currently in the middle of renovating their website. As of yet, very little seems to have changed. A look on the Wayback Machine, an internet archive of website screen captures, shows a virtually identical site on June 22, 2006 — nearly 10 years ago.
To be sure, the merit of a class is not dependent on how aesthetically appealing its website is. But the stagnant state of Math 114’s course website seems representative of a larger problem: despite the low ratings and negative student responses it receives year after year, the course has been slow to change.
“There’s a lot of people who are forced to teach calculus classes who seem like they don’t care at all,” College and Engineering senior Sarah Dean said. Dean is a teaching assistant for 104 who has also been a TA for 114 multiple times.
“I think the problem with calculus courses — and the Math Department as a whole — is that it’s not that young or forward-thinking,” Dean said. “There’s not a lot of momentum, except in individual people. But it’s not like the whole department is saying ‘Let’s rethink math’ or ‘Everybody hates math; let’s make everybody love math.’”
At the end of each semester, the instructors for the course meet during finals week to discuss grading. It often seemed as if the professors were out of touch with their students’ needs, Dean said.
“Sometimes it felt like the professors were reacting like ‘I can’t believe they got that wrong, that’s so dumb,’” she said. “Maybe you didn’t teach it right.”
This negativity is evident in rankings of Math 114 on Penn Course Review. The average is 2.2 and 2.4 for course and instructor satisfaction. But there are some outliers. Ghrist’s scores are significantly higher, at 3.27 and 3.55.
Ghrist, who has a dual appointment in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the College of Arts and Sciences, designed Math 114e — a version of calculus specifically for Engineering students to emphasize the skills they would need later on in their studies. There’s also a version of calculus specific to the Wharton School — Math 110.
Ghrist said he no longer uses the textbook in his 114e class due to student complaints about its outdatedness and price. He is currently developing a digital textbook meant to be read on a smartphone, and creates many of his own materials for class.
While Ghrist attributes his popularity to the makeup of his classes (all engineering students), the explanation doesn’t fit for Penn professor Nakia Rimmer, a lecturer in the Math Department whose instructor satisfaction score of 3.67 for Math 104 outshines the course average of 2.5.
Rimmer’s online video lectures are a useful resource to many students, and the used-up expo markers littering his whiteboard speak to the popularity of his office hours.
“That was my goal when teaching — I would always make myself available,” Rimmer said. “So I have extra office hours, just to make myself more available to students.”
Rimmer said that he was able to devote more time to teaching outside of the classroom due to his position within the department, which is focused on teaching and administrative duties rather than research.
Dean also praised Rimmer’s teaching.
“He actually cares about teaching, where other professors seem to care more about their research,” Dean said.
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