For some students in the arts and humanities — and a few in the social sciences — the very idea of taking a course in mathematics or science is absolutely terrifying. From her office in the College’s Quantitative & Symbolic Reasoning Center, Mary O’Neill proudly watches such students’ eyes light up as, with the help of peer tutors, incomprehensible figures on homework assignments suddenly make perfect sense to them.
Now in her 19th year as director of the College’s QSR Center and as academic support coordinator for QSR, O’Neill directs the effort to integrate quantitative critical thinking with Hamilton’s rich liberal arts curriculum. “Every day we are bombarded with information on the news, on the Web,” she says. “Sifting through this data, and knowing how to read it to find what information is pertinent helps us to be better citizens.” Through quantitative literacy, “we can understand the world.”
The College has long been nationally recognized for cultivating excellence in oral and written communication. More recently, the realization has come that proficiency in quantitative literacy is crucial as well. The critical thinking strategies utilized in QSR are not limited to math, science and related professional fields; they play a key role in virtually every modern discipline and are applicable to many daily situations as well.
With that in mind, Hamilton’s Committee on Academic Policy passed the Quantitative & Symbolic Reasoning Requirement in 2009. This policy directs students in the Class of 2014 and later to complete at least one course in statistical analysis, mathematical representation or logic/symbolic reasoning by the end of their second year. It’s the most recent step in a process that began when the College opened what was then called the Quantitative Literacy Center in 1990 in Silliman — now Couper — Hall to assist students with understanding course material. Later the center moved to cramped quarters — and limited hours — in Christian A. Johnson 224, sharing space with classes. A 2012 relocation to the enlarged, airy Christian A. Johnson 303 reflects the center’s growing importance, as well as increased demand; in the fall, 203 students utilized the center’s services.
While support usually involves assisting students with course assignments, the core mission of the center is to foster skills in evaluative thinking, symbolic understanding and creative analysis through peer tutoring. Visiting students are matched by discipline with one of 19 current tutors recommended by Hamilton faculty members. Tutor Kevin Rovelli ’15 says that helping struggling students is “rewarding.” He recalls a session in which a physics student painstakingly labored over a challenging problem. “All of a sudden it clicked [and] became easier,” Rovelli says. “Being able to help [students] make connections is one of the coolest things.”
With such support from the QSR Center, students learn to appreciate — not fear — Hamilton’s QSR requirement. O’Neill will retire in June, with plans to develop a handbook for tutoring center directors under a National Science Foundation grant, but she leaves a thriving program of students “aware of the need to be critical thinkers — reading and analyzing data and statistical information,” she says. “Quantitative literacy is another way of communicating information, data and material.”
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE. In his independent study project Patterns: Spatial Scale and Natural Order, Matthew Combs ’13 combines principles of fractal science and chaos theory to explore how and where natural patterns repeat. “I have commingled structural creations born with and without the effort of humans. Each pattern rests in its own abstract space, prompting viewers to make assumptions and connections before they know exactly what they are seeing.” Combs, a biology major, captured many of the images using the College’s scanning electron microscope. For more about the project, including a key that describes each image, see matthewcombs.wordpress.com/2012/12/30/45.