Colleges to promote statistics over algebra for liberal arts majors

Statistics may be promoted over algebra for English majors.

The University System of Maryland has come up with a way to help liberal arts students who struggle with algebra.

Encourage them to take statistics instead.

University system administrators are using a $3 million federal grant this fall to launch a pilot remedial statistics course at a dozen two-year and four-year colleges, including Towson University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Coppin State University.

They are hoping a switch to statistics could make it easier for many students to fulfill their math requirement, leading to faster college completion rates and fewer dropouts.

The approach makes sense to Poulomi Banerjee. Banerjee, 21, was a good math student in high school, and jumped right into calculus when she arrived at UMBC.

She says she soon realized she was in over her head. She switched to statistics — which turned out to be more relevant to her degree in health administration and policy.

"Statistics is very helpful in the work I'm doing now," Banerjee said. "I think it's great that they're allowing that for students. I couldn't imagine not having that option."

The pilot course is part of a larger movement to guide students in liberal arts majors, some of whom struggle with algebra, toward statistics, which might be more relevant to their courses of study and professional interests.

Administrators were unable this week to provide pass rates for students in algebra and statistics.

Administrators plan to track students as they take the trial course and move into a standard statistics class over the next two years. They hope some 1,560 students in the dozen colleges involved will enroll in the pilot.

Most students entering Maryland's public university system take a math test and are placed in an introductory algebra or remedial math course.

Some students are directed to a more advanced course — a higher level of algebra, or calculus.

Some end up taking remedial math again and again.

"Students get stuck in a kind of loop," said Nancy Shapiro, the system's associate vice chancellor for education and outreach. "It's just hanging out there like a hurdle that they have to get over."

Students still can take algebra and calculus if they wish. But university system officials hope statistics will become a more popular alternative. Academic advisors will let students know they have alternatives beyond algebra and calculus to fulfill their math requirement.

"Ideally we want students to take the math course that works for them, and what was happening in the past was they were restricted to a math course that wasn't a good fit for them," Shapiro said. "So we're expanding the choices."

Students at Maryland universities have always been allowed to fulfill the math requirement by passing statistics, Shapiro said, but many were unaware of it.

Since encouraging liberal arts majors to take statistics is a newer concept, administrators want to test their theory that the material will prove more useful to students, and lead fewer to drop out.

Many of the state's public community colleges directed students to take algebra based on a reading of Maryland regulations that required completion of a math course "at or above college algebra."

The Maryland Higher Education Commission tweaked those regulations this year to make it clear that classes in statistics or quantitative reasoning also fulfilled general education math requirements.

Scott Wolpert, who chairs the math department at the University of Maryland, College Park, supports the shift to statistics for liberal arts majors.

"We live in the era of big data and every possible profession is being affected by it," Wolpert said.

But he added that algebra and calculus are not going away.

"At the same time that big data is going on and affecting all professions and all parts of the economy, engineering and computer science are booming," he said. "Pre-calculus is the entryway to computer science, the sciences, engineering and the like."

Former University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan is heading a task force examining the math requirement. He said he has been surprised by the level of support for allowing students to fulfill the requirement with statistics without taking algebra.

"I think the mathematics community has come to realize that in this day and age with so much interest in data and other areas of quantitative reasoning that for many students there are more appropriate entry-level courses," Kirwan said. He cited statistics, game theory, probability and mathematical modeling as examples.

David May is the project director for Advancing Mathematics Pathways for Student Success, a project sponsored by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Organizers are attempting to coordinate efforts among colleges around the country that are trying to guide more students into statistics.

Colleges in at least 15 states have joined the movement. He said the effort in Maryland has made it a "model state."

"I think Maryland is going to be one of the places that we will point to as a place where they've gone about it in a good way, getting the faculty involved, getting the state involved, and not having it be a college-by-college effort," he said.

English professor Jennifer Ballengee, the chairwoman of the university senate at Towson University, said "statistics is something that they [liberal arts majors] need to use."

But she is concerned a shift away from algebra could make students less competitive in the workforce than their peers at private universities who are required to take it. She said administrators should consider whether there will be any loss in quality of education.

"We want to make sure we're not churning out students whose education is just geared toward a job," Ballengee said. "Because I think there's a real loss there, if we imagine that we only need college to train us for a career."

Banerjee, the student who struggled with algebra before switching to statistics, graduated from UMBC this year. She's working on campus as a program assistant while she figures out her next career move.

She says she's using statistics in that job. She would have liked to take more classes that were relevant to health administration and policy.

"A lot of my courses I needed to take didn't fit with my major and they're pretty useless right now," Banerjee said.

Bentley Corbett-Wilson, the student body president at UMBC, took an introductory algebra class in his first semester at the school.

The music education major struggled, and ended up with a D.

The following semester, Corbett-Wilson took algebra again. This time he found it easier, and earned a B.

He said buckling down and mastering something he disliked was a good learning experience.

"I hate math with a passion," he said. "But it was actually good to be in a math class and actually have to learn the material and make sure that I knew it well."

cwells@baltsun.com

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