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Math maplets provide step-by-step help for students

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Thinh Kieu and Phong Luu created aids to help students learn how to do mathematics problems step by step.

College mathematics problems can require numerous steps to find the right answer. A pair of University of North Georgia (UNG) faculty members have devised a way to ensure students don't have to wait until the final step to know if they are on the right path.

This saves students time because, when using a package the faculty members have created in the popular mathematics-learning software Maple, they must get each step right before they move to the next. If the students get a portion wrong, the tool created through Maple's "maplet" builder function — a sort of digital tutor with "infinite patience" — provides hints to help students find the right answer so they can advance to the next part.

A Presidential Semester Incentive Award in 2018 helped Thinh Kieu, associate professor of mathematics at UNG, and Phong Luu, assistant professor of mathematics, launch their work on the maplets. They published an article, "Enhancing the Teaching and Learning of College Algebra with ColAlgMap," in the International Journal for Innovation Education and Research this August. They also presented their work at the Innovation in Teaching Conference on Oct. 25 at the University of Georgia.

"We created these maplets so students could have a free way to receive step-by-step feedback on their homework and similar problems they want to practice," Luu said.

UNG President Bonita Jacobs has awarded more than $1.7 million in Presidential Incentive Awards since she launched the initiative in 2013 to provide professional development and research opportunities to enhance faculty members' teaching, develop innovative practices, and support undergraduate research.

The maplets are available for algebra, pre-calculus, and Calculus I and II in the ACTT Center in the Watkins Building on UNG's Gainesville Campus, where students can work with tutors.

"This approach helps students find the right answer," Kieu said. "It also shows them the process to get there."

Kieu and Luu said the maplet is versatile in that it can serve as a digital tutor, aid a human tutor or even assist faculty in their instruction of students.

"Teaching and learning lower-level mathematics courses on the college level can be challenging and overwhelming," according to the abstract of their journal article. "This paper will demonstrate how to design and develop a maplet package to aid in the teaching and learning of mathematics, to serve as a private tutor with infinite patience for college algebra students, and as a useful pedagogical tool for instructors."

While Maple generally offers general guidance to solve problems, the maplets allow users to create aids for specific types of problems.

"It can be used for demonstrations in lectures to reveal a new concept, as a group activity in a lab setting, or as a drill-and-practice tutor for individual students," Kieu and Luu wrote in the journal article. "The maplets support both randomly generated problems as well as user-entered problems. This allows students to enter a specific problem from another source."

The maplets also provide 3D images of the graphs associated with the math problems.

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