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William Kazmierczak

A new equation for calculus classes:
   First-year program director teaches ‘flipped’ math course

By Eric Coker

William Kazmierczak saw the advantages of interactive learning early in his teaching career.

“When I was a young lecturer, I realized that students weren’t always giving me the feedback I needed,” he said. “Sometimes, it was a one-way conversation. I was a good lecturer, but the courses were better when the students gave me feedback. It felt like a discussion. Even in mathematics, it’s possible.”

As Harpur College’s new director of calculus, Kazmierczak has brought the “flipped” classroom model to the Department of Mathematical Sciences. It is just one example of the University’s effort to build a top-level calculus program that focuses on outstanding pedagogy and student-centered learning.

“Calculus is the key to success for students in so many majors, yet all universities face challenges in helping students master this demanding subject,” Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Nieman said. “Dr. Kazmierczak is dedicated to student success and brings to Binghamton enthusiasm, innovative ideas and a real commitment to engaged teaching and learning. I am confident that, working with his outstanding colleagues in the Math Department, he will help us create a premier calculus program.”

Calculus courses are required for science and math majors in Harpur College, engineering and computer science majors in the Watson School and some of the majors in the School of Management. Enrollment in the basic calculus courses (MATH 220, MATH 221 and MATH 222), together with a calculus prep course (MATH 108), has increased over the years and is now at 1,700 students in the fall and 1,000 students in the spring, said Anton Schick, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematical Sciences, which is now located in Whitney Hall. The courses, mainly taught by graduate students, are scheduled in small sections with about 32 students in each class.

Kazmierczak, who taught at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., from 2000–2013, joined the faculty in the summer of 2014 and took over the day-to-day calculus operations. He oversees the courses, teaching assistants and calculus testing center, and implements best-teaching practices.

“I liked how everyone (at Binghamton) was behind new development in the calculus program,” he said. “I had the support I needed for something I always wanted to do: Create a program that will be the future of teaching calculus.”

Calculus 1 (MATH 221) is the first “flipped” course in the program. In a “flipped” course, technology is used to move introductory material out of the classroom. The freed class time is then used for group sessions that are coached by the instructor. For example, in Calculus 1, students receive a video to watch outside of class that introduces them to a topic. The instructor spends the first five to 15 minutes of class discussing the topic and then the students work in groups on problems. Another short lecture wraps up the topic.

“I’m going around, seeing what they are doing and helping them,” Kazmierczak said. “You know when they have problems on certain topics. (The problems) get corrected and they retain it.”

Students have had a positive reaction to the course, Kazmierczak said.

“I didn’t expect them to communicate with me so quickly,” said Kazmierczak, who was named “Most Caring Professor” by Stevens Institute students in 2011. “Students can sometimes be afraid of their professor for the first couple of weeks, especially freshmen. But right away, they were asking questions. That’s the number-one thing I was happy about. Any classroom that is too quiet makes me nervous!”

Kazmierczak taught a section of Calculus 1 in the fall and will teach Calculus 2 in the spring. He also led a graduate-level course for new graduate students on teaching mathematics (MATH 591). But in order for graduate-student teachers to bring Kazmierczak’s ideas to all sections of Calculus 1, instruction had to begin before the start of fall classes.

A four-day instructor-training program, led by Kazmierczak, was held in August. Three dozen teaching assistants attended and not only learned about the “flipped,” interactive classroom, but also practiced teaching in front of the math professors. The TAs watched films of their mock teaching and learned lessons ranging from speaking clearer to alternate methods of explaining the material.

“A lot of our instructors are TAs — third- and fourth-year graduate students,” Kazmierczak said. “The training program has to get them ready quicker than they normally would. We have to make sure they are ready and prepared.”

Good teaching and the interactive classroom are the keys to a premier calculus program, Kazmierczak said.

“Studies have shown that people who are good at teaching calculus do the same or better when they switch to an interactive classroom,” he said. “It doesn’t affect those who are already teaching well.”

Having a director of calculus benefits the Department of Mathematical Sciences and Harpur College, Schick said.

“We expect a better all-around experience for the enrolled students,” Schick said. “Our faculty receive a relief in their administrative duties associated with calculus. Our graduate students benefit from enhanced teaching training and mentoring that will suit them well when entering the job market. (Kazmierczak) is also bringing with him some new and exciting ideas for improving the calculus program.”

Kazmierczak, who will develop the program with the assistance of a calculus advisory board, also is taking an interdisciplinary approach to his work. He is collaborating with Mike Elmore, director of the Engineering Design Division (the freshman engineering program) in the Watson School, on emphasizing the importance of calculus in engineering.

“I know (Kazmierczak’s) calculus instructors will have a better appreciation for the application of calculus in engineering,” Elmore said. “And we in the Engineering Design Division are completely redesigning one of our spring engineering courses (WTSN 112: Introduction to Engineering Analysis) to be more focused on the application of calculus and other branches of mathematics to engineering problems.”

Kazmierczak said he will collect data and feedback on the Calculus 1 course and use end-of-the-semester assessments to determine what has worked and what needs improvement. He said he hopes to use the “flipped” classroom model in the spring Calculus 2 course, with all calculus courses being interactively taught by spring 2016.

“We are going to have a system in place where we take the graduate-student instructors and have them take the summer program and my 591 course,” he said. “They will be ready to go. “I think there is a way of teaching (calculus) that can help students enjoy the mathematics and also do well in the course.”

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Last Updated: 3/1/17