Texas A&M University is taking a new approach to transformational learning this spring, merging computer games and calculus with the aim of reaching additional undergraduate students who may be interested in earning elective math credit in just four weeks while helping to usher in a paradigm shift in education.

MATH 289: A Game-Based Approach to Calculus is a one-hour, one-credit online course offered by the Department of Mathematics and centered around a Texas A&M-developed computer game intended to provide a more thorough qualitative approach to fundamental concepts in calculus–specifically, limits and continuity.

“The concept of limits is the basis of everything in calculus,” said Texas A&M mathematician Dr. Paulo Lima-Filho, associate head for operations and undergraduate programs for Texas A&M Mathematics. “Lots of courses focus on the mechanics, but this one concentrates on the fundamental framework. If you can instill in people a qualitative understanding of limits, you can teach them calculus.”

Lima-Filho says the course is built upon the educational video game Variant, which was unveiled roughly a year ago by the Bryan-based company Triseum to rave reviews on one of the world’s largest mathematical stages, the 2017 Joint Mathematics Meetings in Atlanta. The game was developed and tested by the Texas A&M Learning Interactive Visualization Experience (LIVE) Lab founded and directed by André Thomas, an assistant professor of the practice in the Department of Visualization who also heads Triseum, in collaboration with faculty in the Departments of Educational Psychology, Mathematics, and Computer Science and Engineering.

The multidisciplinary team’s goal was to make Calculus I more understandable for the 38 percent of undergraduates nationally who fail or drop the course, according to the Mathematical Association of America. Their work was supported by a $100,000 Texas A&M Tier-One Program (TOP) grant, for which Lima-Filho and Thomas served as the principal investigators.

Lima-Filho notes that the class, which both Texas A&M and Texas A&M at Galveston students can sign up for by searching by MATH 289 courses for the spring 2018 term within Howdy, is a short course–one not intended as a replacement for regular calculus. Instead, he views it as one possible way to increase undergraduate retention by keeping students interested and motivated.

“The idea is to offer an engaging environment in which students will think about math and use it in a completely different way,” Lima-Filho said. “While playing the game, your mind is constantly engaged in thinking mathematically. It’s enjoyable and challenging at the same time.”

The class will be taught by Benjamin Lynch, a lecturer in the Texas A&M Mathematics and MATH 150 course coordinator. Lynch has been working on class preparation since the summer, testing Variant with pilot student groups within the LIVE Lab. The course content was developed alongside that of other calculus courses within the university’s WebAssign/Cengage system.

“It’s the same framework–from textbook to homework–as a regular calculus course, except the delivery is online,” Lima-Filho said. “The game itself has prompts where students can refresh the theory if they’re curious about it or want to solidify the concepts.”

Lima-Filho says the game-based course is one of several new pedagogical tools his department hopes to disseminate throughout the state to help improve mathematics education across Texas while also popularizing math and debunking old-fashioned stereotypes that are harmful to the future of younger generations.

As for Variant’s future, Lima-Filho says there are plans for four total games that, all together, will present a comprehensive calculus treatment.

To learn more about Variant, see a past feature that appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of the Texas A&M Foundation’s Spirit magazine:

For additional information about LIVE Lab and its other educational offerings–including a previous game, ARTé: Mecenas, currently being used by Texas A&M Visualization to teach Italian Renaissance art history–visit http://live.viz.tamu.edu/.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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