Professor Estela Rojas

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» Spring 2004

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Professor Estela Rojas

"How do we learn?" That's a question Mathematics Professor Estela Rojas, 2004 Scholar on Campus, had been asking for 25 years. Today, as director of the College's multi-million-dollar U.S. Department of Education Title V grant-funded project that uses the "learning communities" approach to freshmen education, the answers she found are bearing much fruit and reshaping the way in which City Tech delivers instruction.

"Education that stresses collaborative learning, in which students work in concert with classmates on assignments and test preparation, empowers them to succeed academically," said Rojas in her Scholar on Campus Lecture. "We learn if we know how to ask powerful questions and go find the answers, reflect on them and make connections to our previous experiences. Learning is this process of discovery, which is empowering." Rojas routinely shares this understanding with teachers in her native Chile, to which she regularl y returns to visit family and as an educational consultant and instructor.

In "learning communities," freshmen take classes together in small groups that give them the necessary basic skills to become independent learners and build friendships. "By having students take liberal arts courses in their first semester at the college," she added, "they learn what tools they need to have to succeed in college and beyond. As a college of technology, we have to prepare professionals who can adapt to a rapidly changing workplace, which is why it's crucial for students to develop critical thinking skills early on."

Rojas also talked about how "learning communities" challenge teachers. Through this approach, instructors from different disciplines team-teach subjects and emphasize development of students' writing, reasoning and critical thinking skills.

Informed by her doctoral work at Columbia University, Teachers College and mathematician Uri Trisman's research on the differing math abilities and learning styles of various ethnic groups, Rojas' "learning by doing" pedagogy takes the unusual step of incorporating writing and making group presentations an integral part of learning math. Students also keep journals that record not only what they learn, but also how they feel in the process. Tests are learning tools, too, as students review and re-do their work, then write about why they made errors and how they solved problems correctly the second time around.

Rojas' efforts have produced some impressive results. For example, City Tech's fall 2001 debut cohort of 140 freshmen in six "learning communities" showed an 11 percent increase in continuance into the sophomore year, and the 2002 cohort of 200 students showed a similar increase.

What makes the success rate even more remarkable is that for many City Tech freshmen, English is a second language. But if anyone can understand the difficulties of acquiring math and language skills simultaneously, Rojas can. When she first arrived in the U.S., she knew the language of numbers, but couldn't speak English. Both she and her teaching techniques have come a long way in the ensuing years to the benefit of current and future students.

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