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University of Waterloo | Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Friday, May 15, 1998

  • First-year math skills down slightly
  • Goodbye to first-year graphics
  • News from weird to serious
  • Now, the Victoria Day weekend
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First-year math skills down slightly

There has been a "downward drift" in the mathematical skills of first-year students entering engineering and probably other faculties at UW, says a study by two UW sociologists. A brief report on the study is presented in the latest issue of Instructional Development at Waterloo, a newsletter from UW's teaching resource office.

Graduate student Susan Coutts and sociology professor John Goyder say they began their study after a provocative statement to UW's senate in 1996 by applied mathematics professor Ed Vrscay. He charged then that a "continued dilution in course material" was in part traceable to the school system's "decreased academic preparation of our incoming students". Coutts and Goyder looked for ways to find out whether students are, in fact, less well prepared when they arrive at UW than their predecessors were a decade ago.

Measuring any changes is difficult -- in part, the sociologists say, because students might differ from year to year for reasons that have nothing to do with the teaching they've received in high school. The most consistent measuring tool they could find was the Mathematics Preparedness Test given by UW's engineering faculty to its entering students each September since 1990. Changes weren't dramatic, but Coutts and Goyder say their statistical analysis confirms "a sharp drop" in scores on the 31-question test in the early 1990s, and "a tapering" in later years.

The researchers also did an opinion survey of UW faculty who have been teaching first-year students over the past decade. Here's what they found:

47 percent of respondents felt academic preparation has decreased against just 12 percent seeing an increase in preparation today relative to 1987. Forty-one percent perceived no trend, in other words responded that the academic preparation of first year students has remained constant relative to first year students in 1987. The dissensus among instructors is not surprising in view of how the decline in scores on the diagnostic test is detectable only with quite powerful statistical analysis. Both stronger and weaker students come to the University every year, and the dominant source of variation derives from these differences between individual students. Different professors may encounter one or another slice of this reality.
There were variations from one faculty to another: "The greatest sense of decline in preparation among incoming students occurred among mathematics faculty respondents. These instructors also reported the most concern about administration pressure to bell grades upward, they were the most likely to see a problem in student expectations of reasonable work load, they tended to report having to dilute the difficulty level of their exams, and they were the most pessimistic about the quality of UW graduates."

One engineering professor told them: "I ascribe the changes to a philosophical change in our treatment of first year students. Previously standards were set high and a considerable portion of students flunked out or withdrew in the first year. This helped motivate all students and also ensured that the remaining were at least minimally capable. Now the philosophy is to retain all entering students if possible. The new approach is probably more humane, but can't help but result in lowered standards." Another said that "students now are as intelligent as before but are not drilled as well in the fundamentals of algebra, geometry, English, physics and chemistry. Their learning and knowledge seems more superficial."

Goodbye to first-year graphics

First-year students in electrical and computer engineering will get through their 1A term this fall without something that generations of students before them have faced: a basic course in engineering graphics. In fact, General Engineering 170, as the course has been called in recent years, won't be taught again for anybody, although students in other engineering departments are still getting most of the content.

There was a time when students in all UW's engineering programs took graphics as part of a "common first year". Systems design engineering was the first defector, long ago, introducing a first-year program based entirely in the SDE department. Chemical engineering followed. Then last year civil engineering combined GEng 170 with one of its own courses to create Civil Eng 125. That left E&CE and mechanical engineering, both of which will abandon GEng 170 this fall. (The changes were okayed Tuesday by the senate undergraduate council, but are still subject to approval by engineering faculty council on May 25 and then by the UW senate.)

Mechanical engineering plans to do this year what civil did last year: combine 170 with another course to create Mech Eng 100. Its planned title: "Mechanical Engineering Communication and Professionalism". The course will include "engineering graphics fundamentals", both the old-fashioned stuff ("multi-view, isometric, oblique, and perspective projections") and computer-aided design. It will also have such content as technical communication, measurement and analysis, engineering professionalism, safety, and intellectual property.

Electrical and computer engineering is going even further, eliminating the graphics course altogether and moving E&CE 150, "Introduction to Computing", from term 1B to take its place in 1A. That will allow changes in upper years of the E&CE curriculum, says Wayne Loucks, the undergraduate officer in E&CE (and, as of September, the associate dean, undergraduate studies, for the engineering faculty).

With new material constantly needing to be squeezed into eight terms of the undergraduate curriculum, he said, "eventually something has to squeeze out the bottom," and GEng 170 was it. "There's certain aspects of the graphics course that we'll be losing," he admits, but in general, electrical and computer engineers don't need some of those skills as badly as they need other things. The change will also give first-term E&CE students a course that's actually from the E&CE department, something they haven't had in the past, he pointed out.

The "graphics lab", spiritual home of UW's first-year engineers, will still get plenty of use in 150 and other courses, says Loucks. "There's hope to give it a new name soon," he added.

News, from weird to serious

Might as well start with two consecutive items delivered yesterday by the electronic Academe Today news service: "Here" in that second item would be Toronto, by the way.

The co-op placement process is under way, with the first batch of fall term jobs posted yesterday (posting #1 expires at 8 this evening). "Also," says a note from the co-op department, "students must hand in one copy of their resume package to the CECS drop-off slot by 8 p.m. today."

The private Academy of Dance offers a performance in the Humanities Theatre at 6:30 this evening.

The Black Walnut open stage for acoustic music has its monthly open stage tonight (starting at 8 p.m.) in the Laurel Room of South Campus Hall.

A memorial Mass for Olivia Ting of the UW library staff, who died May 9, will b held tomorrow (Saturday) at 10 a.m. at St. Michael's Church on University Avenue. Arrangements are being made through the Edward Good Funeral Home in Waterloo.

The third annual Waterloo County and Area Quilt Festival starts tomorrow and runs through the end of the month. It includes exhibits, lectures and other events across Kitchener-Waterloo and beyond, all leading up to the Mennonite Relief Sale and Quilt Auction on May 30 in New Hamburg. Information: the Joseph Schneider Haus, 742-7752.

The teaching resource office will offer a brown-bag workshop next Friday (May 22) aimed at teaching assistants. Topic: "Assessing Your Students -- Issues of Fairness". People who want to take part in this noontime workshop should preregister by calling ext. 3132.

[Queen Victoria]

Now, the Victoria Day weekend

Monday, May 18, will be Victoria Day and a holiday. Classes will not be held at UW, and offices and most services will be closed. (But the Ron Eydt Village conference centre will be busy, with about 100 delegates to the Ontario Folk Dance Camp doing what folk dance campers do.)

Some key services as they'll be provided at Waterloo this weekend:

And no, there are no fireworks on campus for Victoria Day. Those will come on Canada Day, July 1.


Editor of the Daily Bulletin: Chris Redmond
Information and Public Affairs, University of Waterloo
credmond@uwaterloo.ca | (519) 888-4567 ext. 3004
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