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Active voice
Undergraduates research shape of human vocal tract

Four math students got a taste of active learning last summer in a six-week program involving a research project with applications in computer security and linguistics.

"The goals were to provide the participants with a meaningful research experience in applied mathematics and to encourage women and underrepresented groups to pursue advanced degrees in the mathematical sciences," said math Professor Tuncay Aktosun, who co-directed the National Research Experience for Undergraduates Program with Associate Professor Minerva Cordero-Epperson. The program was sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America and funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Security Agency and Moody’s Foundation.

All four students are Hispanic. Two are female. Two had no research experience, and two had limited experience. The students received stipends and were not permitted to hold jobs or take on other responsibilities.

The research topic was the direct and inverse problems for determining the shape of a human vocal tract from sound measurements made at the lips. The students began each weekday at 9 a.m. in a seminar room, where for 90 minutes Dr. Aktosun explained facets of the topic and identified the goals.

Since the topic was interdisciplinary, the students used techniques from several areas of mathematics. They spent afternoons in a computer lab staffed by graduate students who were experienced in teaching and mentoring undergraduates. Twice weekly, in the early evening, they attended a seminar class to improve research and presentation skills.

Team member Nora Castañeda said the program gave her insight into what professors do when they are not teaching. She is now considering pursuing a master's degree.

 "Dr. Aktosun’s expertise in this topic, his patience and great teaching skills made this experience memorable and rewarding," she said. "I expected the program to be passive learning, similar to that of a classroom environment. But it exceeded my expectations by providing an active-learning environment where no question was too basic. The main objective was to learn."

Active learning is an educational paradigm with deep roots. In the fifth century B.C., Greek philosopher Sophocles said that "one must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try."

Last year, through a series of campuswide discussions, surveys and focus groups, UT Arlington faculty embraced active learning as the cornerstone of its Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), a new element in the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' periodic accreditation process. Active learning is designed to enhance undergraduate education by creating situations where the instructor defines the learning environment and students are responsible for actively engaging in the process.

"Students will do more than just listen. They will be actively involved in the higher-order thinking tasks: application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation," said political science Associate Professor Victoria Farrar-Myers, who joined the Provost’s Office to spearhead the QEP initiative. Dr. Farrar-Myers said 12 active-learning models have been developed for implementation in fall 2007.

Aktosun and colleagues Ruth Gornet, Hristo Kojouharov, Barbara Shipman and Jianzhong Su have developed a program similar to last summer's national one. Their "Active Learning Through URE Courses" is one of the 12 QEP models. Through the URE (undergraduate research experiences) courses, they hope to involve most UT Arlington math majors in supervised research within five years.


— Sue Stevens

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