Professor Ranferi Gutierrez wanted an online learning solution to enhance his teaching and help students bridge the gap between traditional teaching methods and newer technological tools.
Gutierrez began using Maple in his classroom, creating assignments using Maple to introduce his students to the software and experience the way it allowed them to replicate and enhance traditional methods of teaching, and to manipulate figures and formulas that had previously been static.
Gutierrez’s work with Maple eventually convinced other instructors of its benefits and it is now widely used at the University. More and more students and professors are embracing the technology and experiencing the many benefits it provides to simplify and improve the efficiency of STEM education.
Professor Ranferi Gutierrez has long been a proponent of online educational solutions as a supplement to, and possible replacement for, more traditional teaching methods. When giving lectures at the Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala, he uses technology tools like Maple to bring his classes to life, to keep students engaged and to offer them an easy way to understand complex mathematical concepts.
Though access to online educational tools was limited in Gutierrez’s home country when he was a student, he became interested in computer simulation programs through his studies in mathematics and physics. “Utilizing computers as an educational tool is still a relatively new idea in Guatemala,” Gutierrez said. “We hardly had one computer at the University de San Carlos de Guatemala, where I completed my undergraduate studies.”
When he started teaching a Calculus course in vector analysis at the Universidad Rafael Landivar in 2001, Gutierrez began developing his first lessons using limited resources, while trying to find advanced technology to help in teaching. He began looking for a new software tool that would allow him to solve simple problems like drawing quadratic surfaces, to replace the black and white textbook photocopies he was using. One of his students who was using Maple V introduced Gutierrez to the software. “I asked him to create some quadratic surfaces, from different angles, and I printed them on acetate so I could use them in my classes,” Gutierrez said. “It worked really well, and I became a fan of Maple, although at the time, I was still not aware of Maple’s full potential. As I gained experience with Maple’s full set of features, I knew it would be of great benefit to my students.”
Gutierrez went to University officials and convinced them to purchase Maple licenses for students. It was then that he began to further experiment with Maple and understand its full capabilities. “I started to create course material in Maple where I laid out step-by-step processes for different mathematical concepts such as constructing 2-D and 3-D graphs, calculating integrals and derivatives, or solving differential equations.” he said. “We even invested in labs so students could experiment with the software during their free time. Many students were excited about Maple because they could now manipulate figures that were previously static in textbooks.”
Maple was installed on University computers, but implementing it into courses was initially a difficult process due to hesitation from teachers who were accustomed to traditional teaching methods. Resistance from teachers was partly due to a fear of technology, and partly because they didn’t want to disrupt traditional ways of teaching. “Many belong to the old guard, preferring to use chalk on a blackboard in their teaching of mathematics,” Gutierrez said. “They did not understand how a computer can be used as a teaching tool, as well as a tool for research and investigation. This is due in part due to the fact that emphasize has traditionally been on electronic sheets or word processors than math software.”
Gutierrez also encountered resistance from some students. “Some students were fearful at first, despite belonging to a generation that regularly uses computers, but they eventually opened up to the idea,” he said. “Students only used computers for gaming or social media. The incentive to use the technology was there; it simply needed to be redirected. Some routinely look to the internet for support and assistance with problem solving, which made it easier to sell them on the idea of using computer-based teaching tools.”
To get his students familiar with Maple, and to make the transition to technology easier, Gutierrez created Maple-based assignments for his course. As the students got to know Maple and its easy user interface they came to embrace the new tool. “The possibility of using embedded components with a drag and drop approach, and not having to worry about programming, got the students to open up more to Maple,” he said. “For example, they could easily adjust parameters through sliders, buttons, etc. and immediately observe what happens when these parameters are changed. Maple made it very easy for them to do such operations.”
When preparing his lessons, Gutierrez incorporates different teaching methods to address the preferences of all his students, and to further ease the transition to online education tools. One example is a lesson on 3-D coordinate systems. In the first lecture of the course, he creates a 3-D coordinate system using metal rods, and uses small balls of foam to teach students to locate the points in that model and become familiar with the 3D system. Then he uses Maple to illustrate the 3-D system in a computer and help students visualize the concept. “The display is much better with Maple, and they don’t have to worry about programming like in some other similar software,” he said.
One of the features Gutierrez most appreciates about Maple is the ease with which he is able to create various applications, allowing him to fully concentrate on areas where students face difficulty. He also cited Maple’s easy-to-use interface as a key factor behind his decision to use it. “The ease of simply dragging and dropping the different elements where you want, as well as the ability to effortlessly modify parameters, make it an ideal teaching tool,” he said. “I like the ease with which you can change colors, line styles, add titles, and more.”
Gutierrez is keen to see students succeed using technology tools, and he strives to make it as easy for students as possible. He prepares study guides for certain subjects that students can take home to further practice problems. He has also created tutorial videos with Maple, so students can better understand the material at their own pace. “The students use these guides and videos at home and then we do short written tests to make sure they have used the resources and have understood the material,” he said. I like it that they don’t require anything but the Maple Player to do that.”
He has tried other software tools, but found Maple to be a more convenient option. “I used Mathematica for a semester, but eventually I gave it up,” he said. “Maple’s programming was very clear and logical. I found the programming language to be far less complicated than the alternatives.”
Over the years Maple has become more accepted at his university, thanks to Gutierrez’s efforts. His colleagues recognize that Maple is much more efficient than more traditional methods. Maple is now a permanent part of many courses, though Gutierrez is still working with his fellow instructors to help them overcome any remaining hesitation and implement it on a wider scale.
In addition to his teaching, Gutierrez has completed research projects and been involved with various physics and mathematics committees. He was a member of the USAC-UTRECHT Committee on Media Education, a collaboration between the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala and the Utrecht University in the Netherlands to improve the teaching of physics in Guatemala. He has also served as the Mathematics Coordinator for the Faculty of Engineering at Universidad Rafael Landivar. Gutierrez feels opportunities are still limited for professors in his home country, and he works hard to improve the quality of education and introduce new, more effective teaching methods.
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