Makena Couture, Edith Cook, and Jill Eisenberg discuss the mathematics involved in buying a house.

Makena Couture, Edith Cook, and Jill Eisenberg discuss the mathematics involved in buying a house.

Looking over her fall semester class schedule, freshman Makena Couture stopped cold when she came across a course called “Math for the Modern World.”

That’s when her anxiety began to rise.

Beginning in the eighth grade and continuing through high school, Couture, like many students, became anxious when studying math.

“Algebra, geometry – I never fully understood any of it,” she said. “That’s what frustrated me and stressed me out.”

Professor Edith Cook, chair of the Mathematics and Computer Science Department, is an expert at dealing with students like Couture. In fact, she and colleague Jill Eisenberg have written a course book, also titled, Math for the Modern World, focused on teaching students in a fun and stress-free way.

“People learn best when they try and solve something that is of interest to them,” said Cook. “If you grab their interest first, they will be more receptive to learning and overcoming their anxiety.”

“Best math course…ever”

Couture, for one, is a true believer. “This is the best math course I’ve ever taken,” she said.

“The way the course is taught and explained in different ways makes sense to me. It makes me learn math in real-life situations, and gives me the knowledge and confidence to go out into the real world and handle a financial problem or the basic skills to run a business.”

Experiencing anxiety when first entering the course, Couture became more relaxed as she discovered that learning math can be fun. “I didn’t have any more anxiety once we got started,” she said.

“Although she was nervous in the beginning, Makena had a great attitude and was an active participant in the classroom,” said Eisenberg, a senior lecturer in the Mathematics and Computer Science Department and associate director of the Center for Learning & Academic Success, which is under the umbrella of Suffolk's Student Success Division. “She developed a better grasp and understanding of the material as the semester progressed.”

Practical applications

The course uses real-world problems to introduce the math needed for literacy and problem-solving in contemporary life and work. It involves a minimal amount of algebra and focuses on math models, concepts, and basic math manipulations.

“We want our students to be able to use math when it comes up in their daily lives,” said Cook, whose novel approach to teaching math began five years ago. “Figuring whether to buy or lease a car, comparing rates between two student loans, or interpreting a graph in the newspaper, we teach our students the math skills to solve the problem.”

At the end of the semester, students are responsible for a project that takes a real-life situation and applies the math skills they’ve been learning in class.

One project involves students calculating the median starting salary for their major, looking at the real estate market, finding a home to buy, and figuring out the mortgage payments that their projected salary would support.

Interactive approach

Students also are taught to write out non-mathematical sentences that reveal the real-life meaning of a mathematical object or problem.

Another writing component has students, working in groups in collaborative classrooms, write their solutions on a tablet. The tablet screens are then projected on the screens for classmates to see.

“The classes are very interactive, and learning math is a positive experience,” said Cook. “That’s our number one goal. If it’s a positive experience, they’ll keep thinking and they’ll keep learning.”

—Tony Ferullo