Faculty Focus: Luis Melara

Feature-Melara-ArchiveWhen Dr. Luis Melara, Associate Professor of Mathematics, arrived to teach linear algebra at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bhubaneswar, India, he felt that something was missing. None of the 160 freshmen in either of his two classes had the book that was listed on the syllabus, and only a handful of copies were available through the library.

“It really surprised me. I asked, ‘What are you going to refer to?’ They said they obtained a copy online and looked at the text on their smart phones.”

The text wasn’t the only thing missing. While teaching and researching at the institute through the Fulbright Scholar Program, Melara also noticed that as part of the course instruction students didn’t use graphing calculators, homework assignments and quizzes were rare, and no computer software existed to complement the coursework. None of that appeared to hamper student success. “The course was strictly based on lecture,” he said. “I try to engage students and work examples with them as a group. They respond enthusiastically.”

Melara received a Fulbright grant last year to teach in India this spring. The Fulbright grant allows faculty to travel abroad to teach and research in their area of expertise and act as cultural ambassadors. Melara pursued the Fulbright in order to learn about teaching methods of mathematics in India and compare it with practices in the United States. His overall intention is to improve his undergraduate teaching practices at Ship.

“The classes I’m currently teaching at IIT are for first-year students. However, in the US the classes would be listed as 300- and 400-level classes. The students in India begin their math and science preparation in eighth grade. Admission into an IIT depends on a student’s performance on two exams. Their strong math background shows the value that is put on education here,” he said.

Melara said more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students in American universities come from India than any other country.  “I wanted to learn what their undergraduate experience is like in India that makes them so successful in graduate programs in the United States.”

In many ways, students at Ship and in Bhubaneswar are very similar. His students in India are “nice, very respectful, and participate in class.” He said they ask a lot of questions and are very organized. He also feels that they are reaching out for attention and affirmation. “They’re seeking someone to give them guidance in mathematics; they want to learn the material very well,” he said.

That provides the perfect opportunity for Melara to further his research. At Ship, Melara helps students to prepare for exams by offering oral reviews. Prior to the test, students work in groups and help each other talk through a math problem at the board. The group can’t advance to the next problem until each student has correctly completed the given problem on the board.

“I want students to get questions wrong and make mistakes,” Melara said. “I want to make them aware of what they don’t know and to learn how to do it correctly, so they can go back and study it. Then, take the exam and hopefully improve their performance.”

Melara hopes that this exercise also breaks his students in India from their traditional rote training. Their math backgrounds are strong. “I’m trying to get them to think differently. The American education system tries to get students to think outside of the box and develop some critical thinking. My Indian students are quick learners.”

At the institute, students have two exams each semester that include comprehensive material and determine 80 percent of their final grade. Students completed their midterms the traditional way, Melara said. Leading up to the final exam, he implemented the oral review sessions. Although this preparation was new to the class, he said he didn't have to push the students to work in groups.

"What I'm trying to implement is learning from their peers. Students can learn a lot from each other, and the experience showed them there are multiple ways to get the correct answer."

The exercise gets students to work together, talk out their thought process, rely on peers who might not be their close friends, and help each other. Through this method, students begin to suggest alternative views to the math problems, Melara said. "It's a learning process for everyone, myself included. Through their questions, I also have learned how they're thinking about the problem and the different approaches they use to solve them."

Once he has results from the final exam, he plans to compare that to their performances in the midterm exam. The oral reviews were used only for the final exam and not the midterm.

Melara said his time in India has been wonderful. "I walk with my wife on campus regularly and everyone is very friendly." Outside of teaching, they have enjoyed learning more about the local culture and food. They also have visited sights such as the Taj Mahal and around Bhubaneswar, which is known as the City of Temples.

"We’re really enjoying the time we’re spending in India. It’s been an amazing life and professional experience."