Professor Receives Calculus Research Grant From NSF

Vrunda Prabhu, associate professor of mathematics at William Woods University, has been granted funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a 36-month research project on understanding student learning of topics in calculus.

The $399,954 grant is awarded jointly to City University of New York and William Woods University. The research will be conducted at four additional institutions: Texas A&M University, Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa, Purdue University and Tec de Monterrey in Mexico.

Prabhu believes that the techniques some students use are similar to those of Archimedes, an ancient Greek mathematician, and John Wallis, a 17th century English mathematician. Based on historical perspectives and observations, Prabhu plans to teach topics in calculus under a somewhat changed and renewed curriculum to judge possible improvements.

“We believe that the techniques used by some present-day students and their thinking is similar to those used by mathematicians in the past and we will include in our curriculum this historical perspective, along with modern rigorous methods to enhance the current instructional materials,” explained Prabhu.

In the proposed project, Prabhu and the collaborators will conduct and coordinate calculus instruction at six institutions; assess students’ performance via tests, essays and clinical interviews; collect data resulting from the different assessment, and analyze the data in preparation for a refinement of the teaching strategy.

“By placing mathematics instruction within an historical perspective, and connecting
history of mathematical development with students’ intuition, [we] will study its effect onstudent understanding,” Prabhu said.

As members of RUMEC (Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education Community), Prabhu and four other collaborators picked an issue they considered interesting and decided to work jointly for funding with NSF. They wrote a paper for the College Mathematics Journal in March 2001 and applied for the June 2001 NSF competition.

The selection and competition for the grant was tough. NSF-ROLE (Research on
Learning in Education) has two yearly competitions. Prabhu and her colleagues were selected on the basis of several criteria determined by NSF. The selection procedure was in
several steps. A panel of reviewers from universities across the country met at NSF to judge and grade the proposals.

The involvement in the topic came from Prabhu’s interest in how students learn, and her concern with the lack of interest in mathematics among college students. “[I] have seen that students’ attitudes about mathematics transform in the direction of totally positive by the end of a single semester. Hence, my interest and concern led me to join the group RUMEC and the same two issues led to the grant application.”

Collaborators will research the learning of the calculus topics of definite integral, limits and sequences.

“We will, in essence, conduct teaching experiments to determine whether our instructional methods are successful and if, as a result of these methods, our students understand more and are more successful in mathematics,” Prabhu said.

According to Prabhu, students dislike mathematics because they don’t see the subject as part of a whole puzzle. They see and learn parts of it, but cannot make it relevant or connect it to anything.

“They don’t see the beauty of math,” she said.

Prabhu came to the United States from India in 1986 as a graduate student in mathematics. She had previously earned her master of science degree in applied mathematics at the University of Bombay. In 1993, she earned a doctorate in general topology at the University of Kansas.

She was a software engineer at Tata Burroughs Limited in India and began her career at William Woods University in 1993.

For Prabhu, the research for NSF is not the first. She has participated in three others, in 1997, 2000 and 2001, while involved in various presentations and publications.

Currently, she is actively involved in the collection of books that will be sent to Kabul Library in Afghanistan.