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OnRamps Course Promotes College Competitiveness Without Sacrificing Student Enjoyment

OnRamps Math Group

Pedro Merced, right, shares his thoughts during an OnRamps professional development session

Zack Williamson
February 4, 2014

The problem that Pedro Merced's students tackled in class today sounds like no cake walk: "They were trying to figure out the linear velocity of a person living in Austin, as determined by the rotation of the Earth." Certainly, a range of the topics covered up to this point in the year are mathematically complex – conics, trig functions, exponentials and logarithms. Yet to hear Merced describe a day in the life in Discovery Pre-Calculus, the class he teaches at Manor New Technology High School, it sounds…fun.

The course is one of four being offered through a pioneering dual-credit, blended learning initiative known as OnRamps. Developed at The University of Texas at Austin, OnRamps seeks to prepare high school and community college students to succeed in college-level courses, addressing the serious problem of completion rates in Texas universities. OnRamps is one of the only programs of its kind, offering dual-credit coursework developed by UT faculty and delivered using the same innovative blended learning approaches, instructional methods, and technologies that are currently in use in classrooms at the Flagship.

...the university asks so much more in their math classes than they were previously asked, there’s a level of complexity, where for the first couple of weeks of their freshman year at the university, I get a lot of emails, a lot of texts, and a lot of tweets asking me for help and calming people down.

One of the ways OnRamps aims to accelerate student success is by offering dual credit to students who successfully complete the rigorous UT-developed and -coordinated courses. According to the 2012 Jobs for the Future Report, students who complete a college course before graduating from high school are one and a half times as likely to graduate from Texas colleges than students who do not take dual-enrollment courses. Before he was able to offer Discovery Pre-Calculus at Manor New Tech, Merced recognized the benefits that a dual-credit math course option could offer his students. "When our kids get into the university arena, a lot of them are fine there because of their experience with the dual-credit humanities," said Merced, "but then when they find that the university asks so much more in their math classes than they were previously asked, there's a level of complexity, where for the first couple of weeks of their freshman year at the university, I get a lot of emails, a lot of texts, and a lot of tweets asking me for help and calming people down." His students' struggles to keep up with the demands of university-level math troubled Merced enough that he decided to actively seek out opportunities to offer dual-credit math at Manor New Tech. When he heard about OnRamps, Merced thought to himself, "This is serendipity."

It’s far more enjoyable for me and my students because it allows for a lot more discussion and more teasing out the idea behind the pre-calculus

Merced points out that, in addition to the benefits of dual credit, the Discovery Pre-Calculus curriculum stimulates a level of engagement not common among Calculus courses. "It's far more enjoyable for me and my students because it allows for a lot more discussion and more teasing out the idea behind the pre-calculus," said Merced. "It's not as dry, and it gets rid of questions like 'When am I ever going to be able to use this, Mr. Merced?"

Merced explained that collaborative problem solving constitutes an important aspect of the Discovery Pre-Calculus course, calling for students to work in small groups and seek solutions to novel applications of calculus problems. A problem is considered "solved" only after all groups have presented their ideas and the class has reached a consensus on a mutually acceptable solution. Yet this process, according to Merced, is not always a walk in the park. The nature of the problems that his students must tackle, called "Explorations" in the Discovery Pre-Calculus curriculum, stretches his students' thinking in ways that curricula that only require students to learn the mechanics of calculus may not. The curriculum was developed by Dr. Mark Daniels, expert in Discovery Learning and a Clinical Professor in the Mathematics Department and the Associate Director of UTeach at The University of Texas at Austin. The way that OnRamps phrases its questions, the way that the curriculum is set up, is not, 'Here's an equation. Now apply the equation and go,'" said Merced, "so there's a little bit of mental gymnastics they have to go through in order to take the concept and then form everything from there."

When Merced describes his class, I think back to the Calculus class I took as a freshman at the University of Georgia. About 30 students arrived to that classroom on the first day, students who were presumably successful in the past and optimistic about their potential to succeed in the class. Fewer than 10 of us were there to take the final in May. I wonder if things would have turned out differently if my classmates and I had taken Mr. Merced's Discovery Pre-Calculus class?

OnRamps is looking for partners to join our network of innovative teachers. With help from UT Faculty such as Dr. Daniels, we prepare teachers to teach rigorous, dual-credit course work using innovative pedagogies through a summer professional development institute. In additional to the Pre-Calculus course, OnRamps offers an English Language Arts course, co-offers a Computer Science course, and will be piloting a Statistics course in the Fall of 2014. Contact OnRamps Partnership Coordinator Megan Parry at megan.parry@austin.utexas.edu or http://onramps.org/request-information/ to get involved in OnRamps.

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