Professor Karen Willcox, a member of the MIT faculty since 2001, has been teaching undergraduate courses in aeronautics and astronautics every year since she arrived at MIT.
In her first year, Willcox was surprised and disappointed to find that many of her students' math skills were less proficient than she expected. She has been working ever since both to better understand this phenomenon and to counteract it.
"I really had the impression that all the students would just be fantastic in math," explains Willcox. "When I realized this was not the case, the first thing I did was to try to understand the source of the problem. I started talking to the math faculty and I realized that there was this disconnect between the math and engineering departments.
"The engineering curriculum builds on material taught in math classes, but in some cases we even use different terminology to describe the same concepts. For example, even though I relied heavily on material from Course 18.03, I had no idea how it was being taught - or for that matter, what was being taught."
Her students were "falling into this knowledge gap," continues Willcox. "So one part of the solution—and of course, the materials on OCW were very helpful for this—was for me to understand exactly what was in those courses and see how that material was being presented by my colleagues. On the other side, OCW also provides a valuable opportunity for math professors to understand how their course material is being used by their downstream engineering colleagues."
Once Willcox better understood the relationships between her course and related math department classes, she realized she needed to make these connections clear to her students. "The next step," she explains, "was to make these links explicit for the students. So in my lecture, I'd say, 'This is what we're talking about today in aeronautics, and this is directly related to what you learned in this math class.' And then with the pointer, I could show them the OCW website, and the lecture, and the problem sets related to what we're learning."
Willcox has already seen improvements; but in her opinion, it's only the beginning. "I think there are even more opportunities in this direction," she explains. "Down the line, I'd like to bring more of the technology into the classroom, so that while I was giving a lecture, I could give students a flashback to something they had seen in a previous course: a visual reminder up on the screen of something that they would have seen in their math class, or a little clip of a video.
My sense is that OCW will really enable us to create better educational linkages, and to fully integrate the learning experience. Our students will have the opportunity to look broadly across their education, and that will have enormous implications for learning."