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Conquering Calculus, Before It's Too Late

Calculus is a major stumbling block for incoming college freshmen. When students flunk or flail in that math class, it costs them time and money, in addition to the expense it brings to universities, which have to devote resources to remediation.

Now a new program at the Texas A&M University, "Retention Through Remediation," seeks to help incoming freshman clear the calculus hurdle—while allowing them to work from home, online.

It works this way: Exiting high school seniors will take a test to assess their math skills, and then be assigned individualized courses of study, which they will do from home using online tools. Participating students get access to online videos, homework, and quizzes. They will also receive help from "highly skilled tutors," math teachers from around Texas, who will communicate with them through various means, according to the university.

A post-test will determine if students are ready to move on to a college calculus course. If they're not, they can enroll in calculus and attend a "Just in Time" program, working once a week during the regular semester with a live tutor.

There will be a fee for the Retention Through Remediation program, but university officials predict the cost will be much lower than on-campus summer programs, which typically serve only 20 or 30 students and require on-site housing and other expenses.

The program, which is funded through a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is scheduled to begin next year. There are plans to expand it to other schools around the country, A&M officials say.

G. Donald Allen, a math professor who helped create the program, assigns some hard cost estimates for students who don't make it in calculus. A student who can't pass calculus and delays his overall education by a semester costs his family $10,000. The price-tag for a two-semester delay can be $20,000, he estimates.

Not to mention the loss for the university, and for society, which might see a student discouraged from pursuing a job that requires math or science.

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