This past weekend, Lebanon Valley College (PA) held a Discovery Day program for prospective students, some already offered admission, others who are considering an application this fall or next. One highlight of Discovery Day was a presentation by three Mathematical Sciences professors. Mathematics and highlights might not seem like they go together on a college visit. But at Lebanon Valley College they do.

The Mathematical Sciences at this small (1,600 undergraduate) liberal arts college in the Lancaster-Harrisburg-York nexus of Central Pennsylvania include not only a Math major but also Actuarial Science, Computer and Data Science, Finance and Mathematics/Secondary Education. The combined disciplines have 150 students and eight faculty. They also run their own job fair to help their students find internships and full-time jobs.

The Actuarial Science program enrolls the most students, and with good reason. Ninety-seven percent of graduates successfully find employment within six months after graduation. Actuaries assess risk not only in developing insurance products and writing policies but also in areas such as pension plans and labor contracts. Lebanon Valley College students typically pass two or three preliminary examinations towards professional recognition by the Society of Actuaries by the end of their junior year; its common to have passed all five (soon to be six) before or shortly after receiving a bachelors degree. At most other colleges that have a strong math department, undergraduates will finish their degree without having passed a single exam.

You might not find another college that places these four disciplines together within a math department. In addition, the faculty design and teach the mathematics courses required for to complete Lebanon Valley’s other degree programs. They select the textbooks, design the syllabus and the classroom space and coordinate office hours to help their students. And this was where the presentation got interesting.

Talk to most college graduates who needed to take one or more math or statistics courses to earn their degrees in anything outside of math, statistics or computer science. You are likely to hear that these courses were not a highlight of their education; they were a required course, something that you got through.

But Lebanon Valley’s faculty approach math instruction in a different way: they ask you to read technical material in mathematics, statistics, finance and computing and write about the process that you used to solve a case problem. In turn, they look for textbooks and supportive materials that make the math easier to understand. As one example, faculty shared highlights of a short list of books amongst each other and alumni in the actuarial profession. The most important question: is this clear? These faculty want you to learn why a formula is what it is, properly apply it to a real-world problem and be able to explain how to solve the problem. While this might be more work than some might want in a math class, it is a better way to teach, much like using business case problems to learn about finance or marketing.

These presenters carried themselves as if they might be the best math teachers anyone could ever have. The two main presenters were also among the higher-rated teachers at the college, one earning a 3.8 (out of a possible 5) on RateMyProfessors.com, the other a 4.1. They spoke clearly and showed that they thought about the best ways to teach to the students in their classes.

This experience leaves me with points to share parents and prospective college students:

  • If your list of possible majors includes math classes, contact academic advisors to ask how they are taught. A large university may teach Calculus or Statistics, for example, in the same large-lecture format as you would see in a less quantitative class, then rely on tutors and teaching assistants to actually teach the material.
  • If you have some time on a campus visit, stop by the bookstore and ask to see a introductory mathematics textbook. Flip through the first chapter or two and ask: “did I ‘get’ it?” There are many decisions that go into choosing the text for an introductory course. Some have nothing to do with whether a student will quickly understand the material.
  • Ask college students to tell you how much they had to rely on tutors to help. If the answer is something like “the professor made it clear to me,” and you get a smile, you might feel more comfortable about choosing that school. It’s great to have an army of possible tutors available to help. But its even better when the teacher helps you to understand the subject the first or second time.

Math is not everyone’s favorite subject. But it is part of the requirements to earn most college degrees, not only from schools such as Lebanon Valley College, but also your local community college. The help comes not only from the teachers, but also the materials they choose.

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