Before this fall semester, MATH 104: Calculus, Part I — a course widely taken among first-year students — consisted of sections for any students in College, Wharton, and Nursing and one section specifically for Engineering students called MATH 104E. Now, all MATH 104 sections are taught under the MATH 104E curriculum, prompting student backlash and concerns about the course's increased difficulty.
The new MATH 104 curriculum follows videos uploaded by former MATH 104E professor Robert Ghrist, which he started recording in 2012, that students watch asynchronously, and synchronous class time during which the professor addresses any questions and discuss problem solving techniques, MATH 104 professor Nakia Rimmer said. Students criticize the change, saying that a lot of the content is specific to engineering fields and the videos are difficult to follow.
A petition to revert MATH 104 to its old curriculum, started by College first year Modadeoluwa Ogunmuyiwa on Sept. 11, has garnered over 550 signatures as of Oct. 4.
"Much of the content of this class is very niche to the engineering fields, meaning that the content we're expected to learn is not applicable to the areas where we actually need it," the petition reads. "For example, Big O Notation is a concept not widely used by any student outside of Computer Science and has never been previously taught in the MATH 104 curriculum."
In response to students' concerns over the new material added to the curriculum, MATH 104 professor and course coordinator Philip Gressman said learning the Big O Notation will help students more easily grasp concepts they will learn later on in the course.
"Once you get the hang of it, it makes a lot of things much easier," Gressman said. "When we get to those topics, we will be able to use Big O Notation to slice through those problems like a hot knife through butter, and they will be actually conceptually be much simpler."
Gressman said that the curriculum changes, which the Math department began working on in April, were put in place to not only prepare for continued online learning in the fall but to help students understand the material on a more conceptual level. He said the old MATH 104 curriculum rewarded automatic computation skills and the ability to memorize formulas.
The move was also made as a way to cut ties between the Math department and the textbook publisher, Pearson, Gressman said.
“We also wanted to end our relationship with our former textbook publisher, because we had perceived that the quality of the product that our students had been receiving was declining over the years and that the prices were going up over the years,” he said.
Previously, students were required to pay for Pearson textbooks and access codes, which would amount to over $100, in order to access and complete online homework on Pearson MyLab Math online platform.
Gressman said the Math department emailed all students enrolled in MATH 104 on Sept. 13, two days after the petition was created, to acknowledge the concerns outlined in the petition and announce that it would not change the new curriculum.
“Reverting to old MATH 104 is not something which is really even possible right now," he said. "When we ditched our book, we burned a bridge.”
Ogunmuyiwa said he felt that the Math department's response was unhelpful and dismissive of students' concerns.
“They just basically replied that our professors are prominent in their field, and they know what they're doing,” he said.
Students added that Ghrist's MATH 104E videos are difficult to follow, forcing them to supplement the videos with outside resources and extra videos pre-recorded by Rimmer.
Ogunmuyiwa described the videos as “scavenger hunts," where he has to shift through many parts of the video that focus on small details that do not help him understand the main concept.
“The videos don't really explain everything and just gives us a bunch of details, and they don't really cover overarching topics or overarching concepts that we're supposed to be learning,” Ogunmuyiwa said. "It's like if you give a child a puzzle but you don't give them the final picture [of what it should look like]."
College first year Johnathan Hargest agreed, adding that MATH 104 is the class he spends the most time on and has to find other resources online to really understand the material.
“It's difficult to learn just from the videos,” Hargest said. “I feel much better when I'm being talked to over Zoom.”
Rimmer has provided students with the videos he recorded to teach MATH 104 summer sessions to supplement Ghrist’s videos.
“I take what's within the videos, and I try to expand further, like do some further explanation to give more examples,” Rimmer said. “I'm able to supplement Ghrist's videos with my videos as well and students seem to like that.”
Ogunmuyiwa juxtaposed Rimmer's "straight-to-the-point" videos with Ghrist's more "complicated" videos.
“[Rimmer] would say, this is the problem, this is how you solve the problem, and this is what the problem means, and then in the Ghrist’s videos, if it goes into practice problems, they would be really complicated and very niche," he said.
Ogunmuyiwa said a simple solution to reconcile students' grievances with the Math department is to use Rimmer's pre-recorded videos, which cover the previous MATH 104 curriculum, as the basis for the class.
In response to students' requests to use Rimmer's videos over Ghrist's videos, Gressman said that the two video series serve different purposes that cannot replace one another.
“Students were feeling a little uncomfortable with the conceptual level of the videos by professor Ghrist, and on the flip side, Professor Rimmer’s videos are all very hands-on,” Gressman said. “Neither one of those replaces the other like you can't run a calculus class that's entirely devoid of conceptual foundation."
With the semester being conducted completely online, Rimmer said that the course's reliance on Ghrist's pre-recorded videos helps facilitate more interactive class time during synchronous sessions.
“The students seem to be able to ask more questions, and I'm able to answer more questions, instead of having a script that I have to go through every single lecture time,” Rimmer said.
Rimmer added that while the online semester influenced the new MATH 104 curriculum and its use of Ghrist's pre-recorded videos, the Math department will continue using this curriculum for future semesters in an effort to help students understand calculus more conceptually.
“I think it was for the betterment of the students learning," Rimmer said. "I feel like it's going to be something that we can use and improve on as we go, and eventually, you know, it could be our standard."
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.