The Math Emporium, located on the campus of Rio Salado College in Phoenix, Arizona, is an informal, cafe-style study and practice space to help students navigate basic math. But that’s not all. The emporium is staffed by a math “concierge” who acts as tutor, small-group presenter, and coach.
As with many community colleges, some Rio Salado students tend to be older than the average college student and/or some left high school early, so they have little memory or knowledge of math concepts. “Less than 20 percent of students can get into and pass a college-level math class,” says John Jensen, faculty chair of mathematics. “A lot of them need practice with lower-level and developmental math; they simply lost [the knowledge] due to lack of use.”
Rather than letting those students get stuck in remedial classes that might block them from reaching higher academic goals, the college decided to try something new.
Coffee and calculations
Other universities, such as Virginia Tech, have math help sites, but Rio Salado’s approach is unique. Five years ago, Jensen imagined a cafe concept for a help center—informal, without the typical chairs and desks in rows, but where students could grab a latte, sit down, and work with someone who Jensen calls a math concierge—to learn or re-learn math concepts. The concierge will also schedule small group tutoring as needed.
In addition to the face-to-face help, students do lessons, watch videos, and take placement practice tests from EdReady. They start with an online assessment and, based on that, EdReady provides a personalized course of study. A dashboard tells students what they have mastered and have yet to master. “We offer a mixture of tech and human help,” Jensen says. “The math concierge is simply there to help like a hotel concierge. It’s very informal, and we hope a very inviting environment.”
The idea is to have students spend about six weeks mastering arithmetic or basic algebra, for example, but some students might take less or more time to finish. “We want to make sure they don’t burn too much time trying to master remedial subjects, which usually takes up to 30 weeks,” Jensen says.
In the end, students should master enough math to graduate in their degree. Students studying business, for example, would likely need a statistics course; the emporium can help them develop a fundamental knowledge of algebra and some basic statistical data, Jensen says.
Creating your own emporium
Jensen encourages other colleges to approach remedial education in a similar way. Here’s how.
Step 1: Define an inviting, pleasant space.
“Students are already afraid of math and we want to take that fear away. You can’t put it in basement or at the end of hall; it has to be welcoming,” he says.
Step 2: Staff it with the right people.
Be sure to hire supportive people who are non-judgmental and believe in students’ ability for success.
Step 3: Be open minded.
Set aside traditional notions of how students learn. Students can finish courses in about four to six weeks.