“Operation Mother Hen” Web-Based Review Tool Helps UB Students Struggling With Calculus

Release Date: April 7, 2000 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Calculus. For decades, it's been the bane of freshman year, reputed to be the make-or-break course for science and engineering majors.

Although perhaps unintentional, that reputation is not entirely undeserved.

"On college campuses everywhere, between 30 and 40 percent of 'intro-to-calculus' students typically either fail or drop out of the course every semester," said Ann Piech, Ph.D., professor of mathematics at the University at Buffalo.

It was a situation that faculty UB members had been unhappy about for years, but there seemed to be no way to rectify it without altering the subject matter.

Now, the Department of Mathematics in the UB College of Arts and Sciences has teamed up with UB Science and Engineering Node Services staff to develop "Operation Mother Hen," a Web-based review tool that has virtually banished the old survival-of-the-fittest mentality for "Introduction to Calculus" at UB. In its place is a system that acts like a nurturing "mother hen," rescuing and supporting students who are struggling with the material.

Initially targeted to at-risk students taking Calculus 141/142, the project's creators have opened it up to all students. And, because the site http://motherhen.eng.buffalo.edu is free and available to the public, it being used by calculus classes outside of UB, including some at the high-school level.

In existence only since the fall, Operation Mother Hen already has cleared the biggest hurdle: getting accepted by students. Since its debut in September, the number of hits on the site has grown from a total of 600 in the fall semester to an average of 200 a week so far this spring.

The site, which is publicized in all calculus 141/142 classes, features streaming video clips of key concepts and illustrative examples from each class. The clips show Piech talking her way through each problem as she works through it on a Wolf Visualizer, an electronic projection system that allows students in class to see what Piech is writing, and also records what she writes so that it can be seen later on the Web site.

Just hours after each class meets, the video clips are available on the Web site. A key advantage that the site offers students is that they get to actually listen in class, instead of madly scribbling notes which, more often than not, may be completely incomprehensible when they look at them again that night.

"Some kids don't take things in the first time around," said Piech. "With the site, they can watch me solve the problems again, exactly the way I did it in class.

"Math isn't a spectator sport," continued Piech. "With Operation Mother Hen, they are privy to my thought processes as I figure the answer out."

An additional component available through the site, called "Ask Isaac," features a UB teaching assistant who communicates live online with students three nights a week. Students email questions, and "Isaac" works with them right online. That process occurs through an agreement with Prentice-Hall, the publisher of the course text.

Operation Mother Hen was developed in response to a broad effort in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the College of Arts and Sciences to make the undergraduate experience in key courses more productive and, if possible, less, well, terrifying.

"Our whole philosophy has changed," said Corky Brunskill, director of Science and Engineering Node Services and a co-creator of Operation Mother Hen with Piech and Michelle Chan, UB educational technology specialist. "It's no longer an atmosphere of who can survive and who can't -- it's about helping students succeed because you've helped them make the extra effort."

The decision to do something about calculus was no accident.

"Calculus has been our Achilles heel," Brunskill said. "Math is a building block: Without it, you can't do the physics or chemistry or other disciplines in science or engineering. Without proper knowledge of calculus, nothing else works."

The success of the site has prompted Operation Mother Hen to take flight elsewhere on campus. The departments of Chemistry, Physics and Computer Science and Engineering are developing their own Mother Hen sites, with an eye toward having them in place this fall.

According to its creators, Operation Mother Hen is quite inexpensive to run. At UB, the technology uses the distance learning/videoconference facilities that were installed for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences' EngiNet project, which broadcasts selected UB engineering courses to other SUNY campuses.

A dedicated server for the project was purchased, as was the Smart Board. Other expenses included the purchase of RealServer and RealProducer software.

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