In every math class offered here at WPI, there always seems to be one common excuse for failing the midterm or NRing the course. This excuse usually goes something like “If I understood WHY this stuff works, then I would have understood everything!” Well, now there is a Calculus class whose goal is to teach not simply various computational methods, but rather to teach the underlying theory behind them as well.
Calculus 143X is a new experimental mathematics course offered by the Mathematical Science department that combines the traditional MA1023 Calculus III curriculum with a theoretical approach to learning new topics such as sequences, limits and parametric curves. Essentially, the purpose of this class is to understand the mathematical roots of certain mathematical properties that are frequently used. The course’s syllabus states: “Whenever possible we will prove statements, or at least we will try to understand where they are coming from.” This lends itself to the overall purpose of the class: to provide those students who excel in math the opportunity to look at fundamental aspects of calculus through a new lens.
The course is currently in its first year, and its students receive the same amount of credit for taking MA143x as the traditional MA1023. “It’s at the Calculus III level, but the course is taught with the idea in mind that we want to reach out to students who are more interested in theory rather than computational drills,” says Professor Darko Volkov who is the only professor currently teaching the course. He goes on to say that “Some students just need to be intellectually stimulated. If you are a very good student to start with and then you are given homework problems that are too easy for you, too repetitive… you may lose interest.”
Samantha Foote ’16 describes Professor Volkov’s approach to the class as “systematic.” She continues on to say that “There is one topic explained, an example given for all varieties within the topic, then we move on to another topic.”
While Foote admits that the class is challenging, she reveals that she would not change her decision to take the class if given the opportunity. “There are plenty of people in there that are willing to help, [and] the professor strongly encourages attending his office hours,” she says.
One notable absence from this course’s curriculum that is included in the curriculum of other Calculus courses is a lab section that covers the use of the Calculus software MAPLE. In traditional Calculus courses, this lab period is used to teach students how to use MAPLE and how to use it to solve problems in new ways. When asked why he chose to omit MAPLE labs from the curriculum, Professor Volkov argued that “While some students love MAPLE labs, others have reported that MAPLE is easy enough to learn on their own, thanks to the built-in help feature.”
He did mention, however, that he plans to briefly introduce the popular software to the class so they can gain a general understanding of the program.
While this course is still considered an experimental course (denoted by the “x” in the course title), there is a hope held by many within the Math department that this course will become a permanent addition to the course catalog.
Professor Volkov explains that in order for the course to be officially added, it must be approved by those within the Math department as well as the Dean of Undergraduate Studies.
For those students who yearn to understand the theory behind the common math principles used every day, MA143X and its accompanying Calculus IV class MA144X are definitely a viable option. While both classes for the 2012-2013 school year are full, Professor Volkov hopes to add more sections next year if there is enough interest shown over the summer.
He adds, “I really enjoy teaching this course, and I hope that the course will be successful for students too.”