Lab coats add to student success in math

By Joanna Steward, College of Arts & Sciences

PULLMAN, Wash. – It’s not often math tutors wear white lab coats, but that’s been one of the keys to success at the Mathematics Learning Center at Washington State University’s Pullman campus.

MLCDuring every one of the 56 hours the center is open weekly, anywhere from three to eight tutors roam the large, tabled room dressed in distinctive white lab coats, ready to help anyone with a raised hand or a question.

The center opened quietly 18 months ago and attendance has been on the rise ever since. In fact, student visits more than tripled last semester, rising to a 1,729 weekly average and a grand total of nearly 26,000 student visits over the course of 15 weeks of instruction.

“I think this is one of the most important things WSU has done for undergraduate students in the 25 years I’ve been here,” said Sandy Cooper, associate professor of mathematics and associate chair of the Department of Mathematics.

Institutional commitment

Similar to the nationally ranked WSU Writing Center, the Mathematics Learning Center (MLC) is a free resource for all WSU students and it provides critical support for one of the core learning goals of the institution. Math proficiency is a graduation requirement and the department teaches more undergraduate student credit hours than any other department at WSU.

“Our students need a strong mathematical foundation to succeed in everyday life,” said V.S. Manoranjan, senior associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of mathematics. “Good reasoning skills help people make better decisions and understand concepts such as the difference between possibility and probability or how computer models about global climate change are created.”

Making a difference

At the MLC, simple white signs hang overhead to identify tables for each of the 26 courses supported by the center. Students may sit anywhere they wish in the open-plan room, said Nathan Hamlin, director of the MLC, “but the idea is there may be other students from their class at the table who they can work with if they want to.”

The MLC is open six days a week and employs nearly 40 tutors. Additionally, most of the math teaching assistants hold their office hours at the MLC, an arrangement that is advantageous for students who have scheduling conflicts or could benefit from individualized instruction. Students with a mathematics question from any course on campus are welcome at the center.

“You can sit down with a student, one-on-one, and help them and then suddenly they understand it,” said Brenda Vincent, a December 2013 WSU graduate and one of the MLC tutors.

“Math is a discipline that requires a great deal of practice and the MLC is a favorable environment where a student can sit down and do that with other people who are working on the same problem,” said Hamlin. “It helps a lot of students get their homework done and they can ask the questions when they have them and not get stuck.”


Nathan Hamlin, director, WSU Mathematics Learning Center, 509-335-0844,

Sandy Cooper, associate chair and associate professor, WSU Department of Mathematics, 509-335-3134,