Academy math instructors teach new approach to calculus

  • Published
  • By Ray Bowden
  • U.S. Air Force Academy

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Col. – Math teachers at the Air Force Academy are modernizing one of every freshman college students’ greatest fears: calculus.

Roughly 15% of 1,100 freshmen at the school began the spring semester with a revamped version of calculus 2, a core academic requirement. Math instructor Capt. Raymond Hill expects that number to double for next year’s crop of freshmen.

“The plan for fall 2022 is for this to be the only version of calculus offered to the cadets,” he said. “This is our first year teaching the class as a prototype.”

The course relies on contemporary scenarios, computer programing and modeling, and information spanning the Academy’s academic disciplines.

“Most calculus courses contain unrealistic problems solved by algebra, using methods common in the 18th and 19th centuries,” Hill said.

Col. Daniel Finkelstein, the Academy’s mathematics department head, said a college student’s first run in with math often affects their higher-learning curve. 

 “We wanted to answer the call with a more engaging and relevant course that doesn’t repeat what cadets have seen since seventh grade math,” he said.

Freshman cadet Colby Switser appreciates the overhauled course.

“I like how we extend the learning into different practical problems,” he said. “I can see how this course will be really helpful going into my physics class next semester. We spent quite a bit of time on vectors this semester and that was new and challenging to me.”

Hill, a 2013 Academy graduate, took traditional calculus classes at the Academy. Along with teaching cadets, he’s an operations research analyst.

“We crunch numbers and data to inform decisions throughout Air Force,” he said.

The gap between his calculus coursework as a cadet and the skills he needs to stay relevant as a teacher was noticeable.

“I had to relearn a lot of the material to be able to teach the traditional calculus sequence because I hadn’t used it since taking those courses,” he said. “Thanks to the changes being made in our core calculus sequence, cadets are getting skills to help them as officers, whether manipulating data or making big decisions.” 

[Editor’s note: Jennifer Spradlin, the Academy’s former social media manager, contributed to this report.]