News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 21, 2013

Learning Line: Rose-Hulman’s Homework Hotline helped 40K people in 2012

Brian Boyce
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Born in a basement 22 years ago, what began as a tutoring outreach has since grown by exponential factors into a national, multimedia hotline for homework help.

For 2012, the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Homework Hotline logged more than 40,000 calls from across the country, as students speaking languages from around the globe were assisted with their studies.

Susan Smith, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Learning Center director and assistant professor of rhetoric, recalled last week how the school’s Homework Hotline was launched in the fall of 1991 through collaboration with the Terre Haute Area Chamber of Commerce. The school was seeking ways it could provide more assistance to students in the Vigo County School Corp., she said.

Before iPhone apps, wireless Internet or really even the Internet itself, Smith said the project kicked off in the basement of Logan Library with just a few telephones.

“It’s always been a part of the Learning Center,” she said. “Initially, we had three Rose-Hulman students who would answer the phones.”

And it was slow from the start, she recalled, noting she began passing around sign-up sheets to Vigo County teachers, asking for the names and phone numbers of students who could use help with math and science.

“And so we called them,” she said, pointing out the tutors had to prove themselves and their ability to coach math and science over a telephone. “By the end of the first year, we had 328 calls.”

Once area teachers realized the Rose-Hulman students were helping the students, and not simply giving answers over the phone, the program began to grow rapidly. In 1995, Smith said the group expanded to Clay and Blackford counties, and a grant from the Lilly Endowment allowed it to offer a toll-free number and offer services in Indianapolis by 1999. It next went statewide as part of a three-year project mirroring Indiana’s educational regions.

Today, Rose-Hulman students speaking 10 languages work as tutors, certified through the National Tutor Association and trained as such with funding provided by the Lilly Endowment.

“We go through an extensive training program with our tutors so we can be a nationally certified program,” she said.

Rose-Hulman tutors are paid as part of their work-study program or through the grant funding, as the service is offered free of charge to participants. Two decades later, thousands of tutors have participated, most for the entirety of their years of study at Rose-Hulman.

“We have a very high retention rate. Usually, once a student is hired with us, they stay with us their entire career at Rose-Hulman,” she said, explaining this helps future engineers not only learn problem-solving and communication skills, but how to deal with people of different learning styles and backgrounds while explaining topics such as geometry over the telephone.

Thursday evening, the office cubes inside the Learning Center were full of tutors, lined out in call-center fashion, armed with headphones and a library of textbooks spanning algebra to basic math. A copy of the periodic table was displayed on the wall of each cube, and Debbie Davis-Brutchen said she’s helped callers age 4 through adulthood over the years.

“I really do like my job. I do it four nights a week. It makes me happy,” the Winchester native said.

Now a graduate student in Rose-Hulman’s engineering management program, Davis-Brutchen said she started three years ago as an undergraduate studying biomedical engineering. Recounting her own early childhood struggles with math and science, she said it wasn’t until a mentor inspired her that she became enthusiastic about subjects which would ultimately become her chosen fields of study.

“It’s fun to help kids get excited about math,” she said, pointing out parents often call for help themselves.

The point at which students progress from basic math to algebra and geometry isn’t just hard for the kids, she observed. Parents from New York to California have gotten on the phone themselves with her to better learn topics they’ve long forgotten. Geometry in particular can be tough as it requires that students visualize the math involved, and this can be challenging to explain over the phone, she said.

Will Kolbus, also a graduate student in engineering management, said the Homework Hotline has evolved from a phone bank into a multimedia operation. For students without telephones, or those with difficulty using them to work math problems, the program now features, which provides live, online chat options, email support, an iPhone app and videos that explain problem solutions.

“I’ve been working here since the sophomore year when I was an undergraduate,” Kolbus said, noting he’s now a shift supervisor and as such gets to work with the multimedia element of the program.

Rose-Hulman’s Homework Hotline employs about 150 tutors, each of whom typically works two nights per week from 7 to 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. About 40 tutors work each night and handle an average of 300 calls.

Smith said part of the fun involves keeping statistics gathered from two decades of operation. Historically, Tuesday night between 7 and 7:29 p.m. is the busiest time, with calls split evenly between high school and middle school students. About 80 percent of the calls are related to math, but tutors offer help in all subjects. The average call is 12 minutes, and the most frequent questions come from algebra, geometry and seventh-grade math, she said.

“Last year we had approximately 40,000 calls,” she said, pointing to the incredible growth seen relative to the program’s humble beginnings.

In January 2010, the program hit a record number of 506 calls in one evening, and last year students from each of Indiana’s 92 counties used the service.

Devon Trumbauer, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering, said calls can be pretty eclectic in nature as tutors develop relationships with the kids they help.

“I was rapped to last week,” the Dallas native laughed, explaining the caller is a long-time client she’s helped over the years who just wanted to say hello. “I like helping kids. I was a baby-sitter, so I think it goes into this.”

While math questions tend to dominate the volume, Trumbauer has helped with grammar and U.S. history on occasion. A home-schooler studying physics on his own proved her lone stumper.

“He was using words that Wikipedia didn’t even have,” she said, shaking her head and noting that the student was appreciative of her efforts, they just couldn’t figure out the problem. “But anyone can call with any kind of question.”

Likewise, freshman Zach Langbartels said he’s felt the pressure to figure out challenging problems rather than simply giving up. The work helps the electrical engineering major keep his basic skills intact while making for a good resume-builder and providing income. At present, the Crown Point native said he’s working two nights per week, but also picks up additional shifts when other students can’t make it.

“I’ll definitely keep doing it,” he said.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or