Published: June 3, 2014

Want to model the progress of a disease over a month's time?  Sure, just write a calculus equation that would model the statistics of the disease's progression for one hour at a time.  Got that done?  Now, just solve the problem over and over again until...Did you fall asleep yet?  Oops.  I forgot to tell you that you could write a computer program to solve it for you.  You just need calculus, statistics, and some life science knowledge.  In Dr. Eric Stade's Math 1310 Calculus, Systems, and Modeling course, that's just what you'll need.  Math 1310 is designed for life science students to learn to apply calculus concepts to natural or earth science phenomena like RNA sequencing or the spread of the disease over time.  Stade says that calculus is important for creating the mathematical models that study of the life sciences require.

Stade recognizes what a transferable skill programming is, and he teaches students how to write their own code using programming software like Math Studio or Sage Open Mathematics Software to solve problems.  Stade says that this technology is helpful to complete dull repetitive equations.  He encourages students to break down a question into smaller questions, like in the case of the spread of a disease over time.  "We try to teach [programming] in a user-friendly environment," he says.  The process of writing a program requires, "Quite a bit of planning, thought, and logical reasoning," he says.  "Often, students are resistant at the outset of the course...Students are intimidated by programming," Stade says.  That's why, "In this course, we ease them into it," he says, first providing a completed program for students to use to solve a problem.  Then, Stade teaches students to write a program to solve a problem, step-by-step.  "From there, students get more confidence and familiarity with programming," he says.  Ultimately, students in his class learn to write their own programs.

Graphic of the evolution of a disease over time, Contributed by Dr. Eric Stade

Graphic of the evolution of a disease over time, Contributed by Dr. Eric Stade

Stade says that he must constantly educate himself in the natural sciences to keep course material relevant for life science majors.  "I spend a lot of time preparing for class," he says, and he collaborates with Professor David Webb in the School of Education and Professors Mike Klymkowsky and Robin Dowell of the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Graduate Program.  Stade's commitment is evident, and students nominated him for a Spring 2013 ASSETT Teaching with Technology Award.  One student wrote:

Through this technology, we were able to use existing models to learn real-life applications of calculus, and by the end [of the course] were able to create our own models for phenomena using math studio coding and class-taught calculus.  This was extremely useful, not only in helping us better learn the material, but also in seeing the ways the material will be ... useful in our future careers as medical and science professionals.

Additionally, Stade uses a tablet device to write and project lecture notes and to do demonstrations in class.  He is interested in how students learn, and he wants to continue to create a more interactive classroom.  "The math department is moving toward an active learning model, which would be more participatory," Stade says.  Stade is working on pre-designed lessons in which he would create skeletal lecture notes written out before class.  Stade would project the notes onto the board, and students would help him fill in the blanks during class.  "Students could talk in small groups, and we would fill in notes on the iPad...In the end, there can be a complete set of notes that can be posted on the web for reference," he says.