By the Numbers

One of the primary perks of my job involves getting to know many Texas A&M Science faculty, staff and students — several of whom I’m privileged to call friends.

In the wee hours of last Friday morning, one of those friends posted what I considered to be a rather intriguing Facebook status update about having 430 exams to grade — her night’s take from a thrice-per-semester event that’s referred to in the Department of Mathematics as a “common exam.”

imageImmediately suspecting calculus, I turned to Google and searched “Texas A&M Math 151.” Success with the first option, which took me to a most helpful departmental link that explained a lot:

“The first year of calculus (Math 151/152) is a prerequisite for most math, physics and engineering courses. In fact, the College of Engineering uses the grades in Math 151 and 152 to help determine who is allowed to enroll in upper level engineering courses. Therefore, it is critical that the Mathematics Department have a common standard across all sections of this course. For these reasons, the Department has implemented a system of three common exams in Math 151 and 152. The final exam will not be of common type. …”

However, as both a writer and someone who had her fair share of trouble with mathematics back in the day, I had to know more. I guess I’m still trying in subtle ways to make up for lost time(s) and to figure out what I could have done differently — well, beyond go to class more and, um, have learned it in high school like my exasperated professor back then so often fervently opined and desperately wished. To be fair, I think if I would have realized then there were people who truly wanted to help me (mercifully, they still do) and that they were putting just as much if not more effort into the class as I was, I would have been a lot better off, if not at least more grateful.

Now that my 40-something self has those answers (thanks to my kind friend in the middle of her grading), I can safely vouch to my former-20-something one that what goes on behind this educational scene definitely is not common. More like nothing short of amazing. Consider the following numbers, for which even I can do the math:

  • 151 — The course, otherwise known as Math 151: Engineering Mathematics I.
  • 68 — Sections offered in Fall 2013 across the Department of Mathematics. My friend is responsible for 12 of those, with between 30-42 students in each.
  • ~2,200 — Aggies currently enrolled in what’s more commonly referred to as engineering calculus.
  • 13 — Instructors teaching those roughly 2,200 students.
  • 23 — Teaching assistants assigned to help those 13 professors and lecturers.
  • 15 — Multiple-choice questions on the exam, which is a combination of scantron/show-your-work options.
  • 7 — Free-response problems.

imageBeyond Math 151/152, the department also offers a Math 141/142 Business Mathematics course characterized by “jumbo-sized” sections of roughly 300 students per section, all taught by seven instructors.

Oh, and did I mention they also offer such resources as Week in Review, Supplemental Instruction services, help sessions and even a summer Personalized Precalculus Program — most of which have been created during the past decade and a half to better help all students, regardless of level of experience and secondary preparation?

All in a day’s work and then some within a college responsible for teaching 20 percent of the total class hours (roughly 1 in 5) taught to all 45,000-plus Aggie undergraduates each semester and — by careful and caring design — set up to pass, not fail, each and every one of those students.

Here’s hoping these 20-somethings realize, truly appreciate and take advantage of those efforts for the absolute services they are long before I did.