The Catholic University of America

March 11, 2010

Calculus + Coffee = A Way to Foster Careers in Science, Architecture and Business

   Associate Professor of Mathematics Farzana McRae helps student Juliet Wilkins at the Calculus Café.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported the bad news earlier this year: Hundreds of thousands of America’s college students annually are precluded from careers in science, technology and engineering because they fail to pass university calculus courses.

To prevent this from happening at Catholic University, the university’s Department of Mathematics has instituted a new resource: a Calculus Café.

Every Monday and Thursday from 4:40 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., any student taking a calculus course can come to what used to be a classroom but is now decked out with sofas, study tables, coffee machine, electric tea kettle and tray of sweets. There they can ask mathematics faculty members about anything they don’t understand about calculus. No questions are too elementary, too advanced or out of bounds.  And the tea, caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, cookies and candy bars are free.

As many as 12 students have come to the café on a single afternoon since it began in September 2009.

More important, preliminary results of the café have been positive, says Associate Professor of Mathematics Paul Glenn, who oversees the coffee and calculus establishment.

“I looked at students’ fall-semester grades for Math 111 — Calculus for the Social and Life Sciences I, a required course for business and biology majors — since the majority of students who came to the café were enrolled in that course,” he says.

“Of the Math 111 students who came to the Calculus Café,” he reports, “the percentage who got an A, B or C in the course was very close to the overall percentage of Math 111 students who got an A, B or C. Those who came to the café needed help — in some cases very substantially — but overall they ended up doing about as well as the overall cohort.

“That suggests that the café made a difference for those students who came,” Glenn concludes.

Many students have come to the café multiple times, which is also an indicator that they find it helpful, he adds.

During each café session, two math professors answer students’ questions.

Calculus is the mathematical analysis of change and motion. It was first developed by the Englishman Isaac Newton and the German Gottfried Leibniz in the late 17th century.

In 2008, CUA began searching for ways to improve student outcomes in math courses because research has shown that excellent mathematics instruction helps universities keep their students from dropping out or transferring to other schools. The specific idea for a calculus café was the collaborative work of Professor Glenn, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Mathematics Sherif El-Helaly, and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences L.R. Poos.

The challenge: CUA students majoring in architecture, chemistry, physics, biology and business have to take a calculus class to graduate. Each engineering student needs to take three calculus courses.

“To fail one of those courses and have to retake it puts students behind in their studies,” says Glenn. “For students who are on the borderline between passing and failing calculus or who are doing a little bit better than that but could be doing a lot better, the café can make a difference — either allowing them to finish their major, or making them a lot happier about the major and less likely to transfer to another university.

“Offering the café tells the students that we care — that we’re making the extra effort beyond offering the usual classroom experience and professors’ office hours,” he adds. “That means something, too. It’s intangible but it means something.”

MEDIA: For assistance, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in Catholic University’s Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.