Math skills put to the test in real-world settings

Bill Ralph’s students are taking their math studies beyond the classroom.

The Brock professor is teaching a course in the University’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics that allows students to assist local organizations with their real-world math issues.

“When the program was designed, we wanted to make sure we were training people for the workforce,” Ralph said. “Experiential learning is exactly what we want.”

Getting beyond the classroom is a cornerstone of Brock’s commitment to Experiential Education. In Ralph’s class, this means going past the conventional chalkboard approach and using computers to engage students, while also helping others.

His students came out swinging, undertaking innovative projects with real-world applications.

One saw an athletic assessment system and growth model created for a corporate client, who wished not to be named; another initiative created an algorithm for Distress Centre Niagara to aid telephone operators who help individuals access support for addictions and mental health.  

As each project supports a client in need, it also forces the students to apply their mathematics studies in the working world.

“It’s definitely good to get out and see how mathematics can help other people in an industry setting, and how valuable we are to people who need help with math,” said second-year math and statistics student Brad Klassen. “It’s great work experience, and it shows us that our skills are useful.”

Klassen, a member of the group working on the athletic assessment tool, was quick to note that he had learned about more than just math in the course.

“We learned that communication is important,” he said, when referencing the exchange of ideas with the client.

For second-year concurrent education student Joyce Khouzam, the Experiential Education portion of the class was deeply inspirational.

“Many of us are going to be teachers,” she said. “Being able to see the difference between learning something abstract and actually applying something in real life helps to get students more excited about what they are learning. We want to do experiential learning in our classrooms when we are teachers, too.”

Khouzam, a member of the group working with Distress Centre Niagara, was excited about being able to partner with an organization that has such a positive effect on the community.

“In an organization like Distress Centre Niagara, where you are trying to assist people in need, everyone’s goal is to help in the best way they possibly can, and to give the individuals calling in and the operators answering the phone the best quality experience,” she said.

Their professor says clients of both projects have been happy with the help the students have provided.

“They are really excited,” Ralph said. “They get expertise and terrific ideas for free.”

Stacy Terry, Executive Director of Distress Centre Niagara, echoed the sentiment.

“We are extremely pleased with the overall outcome of the project and the effort the group put in,” she said. “There was a lot of work involved and they did it in a relatively short amount of time.”

She also described the overall impact of such an important project.

“It will help make things more streamlined and efficient on our end. The community may not notice, but we will notice how we are more efficiently able to deliver service. There is validation and accountability for our responders when the program assists with service choices for individuals who call in.”

As for Ralph, he was particularly proud of the creative freedom students are given in what is, after all, a math class.

“Students often don’t have a chance for creative expression,” he said. “In this program they do, and I love that.”

He also emphasized that the most important aspect of experiential learning is applied well after the second-year course is complete.

“It helps them define their careers. They see what they can do and what is required, and the course allows them to redirect their careers to what our society is interested in.”

Beyond student creativity and experience, Ralph summed up the importance of helping local organizations with their math issues for the betterment of the community.

“It’s tough to do, and our people can help.”

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