What kind of math do business professionals need to master? That was the question I had top of mind when my dean asked me to join a taskforce to redesign the first two years of our undergraduate business curriculum.

If you’ve ever been asked by a dean to join a taskforce to redesign something, then you may now be shaking your head in solidarity, with a grim prediction about how this story ends. I like a dim view of things as much as the next pessimist, but in this case, I am ecstatic to report that this story has a happy ending, or really, what I hope is a happy middle.

Here’s the story.

Flash back to 2012 and the taskforce: we had a broad scope, and I decided to carve out a piece of it around our school’s math requirement. Our math requirement was quite typical for undergraduate business schools, a course called Finite Math, plus a course called Business Calculus.

I had been interested in these courses for a while. When I chaired the school’s curriculum committee, I had done a survey of our faculty, listing the topics in those courses and asking them to rate how they used each one in their courses, ranging from, “I use this topic and I expect students to already know it” to, “This topic is not related to my course.” The results showed a strong consensus around the importance of a few topics: linear equations, functional notation, and probabilities. There were many – I’d say too many – other topics in the math courses that were disconnected from the rest of our curriculum.

I wanted our school to have a totally different type of math class than any I knew about. I wanted the course material to mimic the way business professionals encounter math, lurking in settings filled with data, unframed by prescribed methods, amenable to many different solution approaches. And when business professionals use math, it is almost always embedded in spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets.

I reached out to our campus’s math department to gauge how interested, or repelled, they would be by this vision. Man, did I hit the jackpot. The department chair at the time, David Grant, and a well-respected and experienced senior instructor, Dee Dee Shaulis (who happened to have been Grant’s doctoral student), became my true partners in this effort. They shared this vision of mathematics in the service of students, or what I would come later to know, in the words of Complete College America, as Math Pathways.

Dee Dee and I developed the course MATH 1112, Mathematical Analysis in Business. It is now the required freshman math class for business students. In Academic Year 2017-2018, 1600 students took the course. All Leeds Business School freshmen take it, as do all students who want to transfer to Leeds.

MATH 1112 is a hands-on problem-solving course, using problems with mathematical foundations from real business contexts. Students use Excel to work with substantial data sets. The course integrates three competencies:

• Recognizing which mathematical operations to apply in a business context.
• Applying the math skills themselves.
• Using Excel as a mathematical problem-solving platform.

We organized the course around applications related to currency exchange, stock prices, income taxes, cell phone pricing, market research, sales forecasting, and other areas. We deliberately chose applications relevant to marketing, finance, accounting, operations, entrepreneurship, and others that integrate those areas.

The application-oriented format of the class is a challenge for some of the students. Each module presents a scenario with data and asks a series of natural questions about the data. This format is a stark contrast to typical freshman math classes (and typical high school classes) organized around methods, with textbook sections covering the methods.

Of the three competencies, the students think the first one, recognizing what math to do, is the no-brainer. But that skill is the hardest to master, and the hardest to teach, but has the greatest potential for impact in their lives. In contrast, the students think what they are learning in the class is Excel. Those skills feel the most novel to them and are visible and concrete.

We do hope that the students realize immediate practical value in learning how to work efficiently with spreadsheets, a tool used everywhere in business. However, even though Excel might be the most visible novelty, the course is serious about developing mathematical maturity—the ability to recognize patterns, to generalize, to translate messy real-life situations into well-formulated problems, to use standard notation, and to adhere to the rules of logic. We want students to notice the connection between volume discount pricing, federal income tax schedules, and cell phone fee tiers (all piecewise linear functions) as well as to be able to create a spreadsheet to do the calculations.

The course materials from the first iteration of the class are posted here, so you can get a sense of the variety and style of the applications.

I am grateful to Complete College America to have the opportunity to share this story with you. This project has been a labor of love since 2012, and I believe it is the most impactful thing I have done in my career. I hope that some of you reading this post will want to learn more.

Laura Kornish is a marketing professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is currently serving as the marketing chair. For more information, see http://leeds-faculty.colorado.edu/kornish/ and http://laurakornish.com/.