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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Math disaster in college: Would-be STEM majors can't add 1/2 + 1/3

After a year of remote algebra, Diego Fonseca struggled with advanced algebra. Despite a week at George Mason University's Math Boot Camp, the would-be computer science major failed the math placement test to qualify for calculus four times. He didn't know the basics.

Across the country, more students are placing into pre-college math, reports AP's Collin Binkley. "At many universities, engineering and biology majors are struggling to grasp fractions and exponents."

At George Mason in Northern Virginia, fewer would-be STEM majors are getting into calculus and more are failing, he writes.

“We’re talking about college-level pre-calculus and calculus classes, and students cannot even add one-half and one-third,” said Maria Emelianenko, chair of George Mason’s math department.

At Temple University in Philadelphia, the number of students in pre-college math has soared.

At Temple, the number of students placed into intermediate algebra, the equivalent of ninth-grade math, has nearly doubled, writes Binkley. It's the lowest option for STEM majors.

In a softball quiz at the start of last year's fall semester, students were asked to subtract eight from negative six, recalls Jessica Babcock. “I graded a whole bunch of papers in a row. No two papers had the same answer, and none of them were correct.”

“It’s not just that they’re unprepared, they’re almost damaged,” said Brian Rider, Temple’s math chair. “I hate to use that term, but they’re so behind.”

Professors tried "expanded office hours, a new tutoring center, pared-down lessons focused on the essentials," writes Binkley. "But students didn’t come for help, and they kept getting D’s and F’s."

This year, Babcock hopes redesigning the algebra class to focus on "active learning" will help. "Class will be more of a group discussion, with lots of problems worked in-class."

George Mason also is offering active learning, and the option to take a slower-paced math class that takes two terms instead of one.

Fonseca failed the placement test four times, again placing in pre-calculus. He'd need at least one extra semester to catch up on math. He decided to start at community college instead. Using what he'd learned in boot camp, he placed into calculus.

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