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December 7, 1998

Delta School pioneers campus's use of new mathematics software

By Jennifer McNulty

Every now and then, people, events, and circumstances come together to make something special happen.

That seems to be the case at Delta School, the alternative high school located in the Crown College Library, where a former UCSC professor of mathematics is teaming up with teachers, students, UCSC affiliates, and members of the local business community to boost the math skills of Delta students.

Delta's "campus" is a crowded and bustling space. A charter school that offers an alternative to students who have dropped out of high school, Delta is an educational experiment designed to meet the needs of its students. The computer laboratory hums with activity, and students pass through the lounge area and administrative offices with ease.

Edward Landesman, a professor emeritus of mathematics, stands out in his jacket and tie. He is visiting the school to demonstrate the new interactive multimedia computer software program he and colleagues at Academic Systems have developed to help students learn mathematics. Academic Systems, a startup company in Mountain View, has already marketed the learning materials to more than 150 colleges and community colleges around the country. Now it's Delta's turn.

"What we're hearing is that students work with this program and find that 'By gosh, I can do mathematics,' and that's very nice," said Landesman. "They do better in subsequent courses because they've learned how to do math. It's very, very promising."

The software features engaging interactive tutorials that integrate lessons, study tips, and evaluations at every turn. Each course takes Academic Systems about a year and "millions of dollars" to develop, said Landesman, adding: "The mathematics is always first, and the bells and whistles are second. There's no compromise on the math. We spent a year just talking about pedagogy before we did anything else."

So far, students find the software a "rich environment in which to learn," said Landesman.

At Delta, where the lessons have been used for nearly a year, the software allows math and technology instructor Dan Weiser to reach students whose skills range from basic math to trigonometry. It is no substitute for personal instruction, but it builds on what a teacher can offer.

"This lets the students work at their own level and at their own pace," said Weiser. The software also records each student's progress, allowing Weiser to review how much time his students spend on each section. That enables him to troubleshoot problems and give more detailed and meaningful feedback.

Delta sophomore Ben Baker, 14, gives the software high marks, saying it's accessible and satisfying to use.

Until recently, Academic Systems has targeted two- and four-year colleges, but they developed prealgebra and algebra materials in response to demand from high schools and colleges where students were struggling with precalculus.

"Algebra is a gatekeeper," said Landesman. "If you can't get through algebra, you're locked out of so many things in life."

At UCSC, the software was used last summer for the first time with students in the EOP Summer Bridge Program, which helps prepare incoming UCSC freshmen for college-level work at the university.

Ray Lapuz of the ACademic Excellence (ACE) Honors Program in the Natural Sciences Division worked with the Bridge students--using the facilities in Delta's computer lab--and said the pilot project went so well that ACE is now exploring the use of the software by students enrolled in their introductory math sections.

Education is a field that seems to breed partnerships, and Delta School appears to foster its share of collaborations. Even the school's computer lab is the result of the dedication of the school's supporters in the business community, including Norman Lezin of Salz Leathers, who solicited contributions from friends and associates to fund the purchase of the computers. Now many of the workstations are emblazoned with bronze plaques that bear the names of donors.

For Landesman, the use of Academic Systems software at Delta School has prompted his return to UCSC in a new role. He is pleased to be providing new tools with which mathematics can be taught. And he is hopeful that his creation will make a lasting difference.

"This is not a cure-all, but it can help lots and lots of kids learn, and that's our intention," said Landesman.

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