Sunday, November 11, 2007

Never too many cooks

Howdy, folks!

Yesterday's installment of Super Saturday set a "Math Discoveries" record for most student volunteers, with six stalwart students showing up, breaking the mark of five, met earlier this semester and originally set in Fall 2006 when five students came out to help organize and oversee a series of mathematical games. Many thanks go to nearly-omnipresent Beatrice and Belladonna, the irrepressible Tallulah and her roommate Betty Sue, who isn't even in my class but thought it might be fun to come along, Sieglinde, admirably representing my morning Calc I class, and first-time shower Trixie, whose hand-painted polygons were a hit with everyone (I likened them to stained glass, and one of the little kids thought they bore a favorable resemblance to wood chips). Thanks also go to the eleven Calcsters who, though unable to attend, each contributed a hundred or more poster board polygons to the effort, they were very much appreciated.

As with any successful Super Saturday, I'm not sure who had more fun, the college kids or the young 'uns. Both big and little fingers had a hard time at first in managing the assembly of cubes, dodecahedra, and icosahedra. Once we got the hang of it, though, it was smooth sailing, and it was hard to stop. Several of the little kids left for home with their own polyhedra and handfuls of unwed polygons, some just took a few to use as templates to trace their own. Tallulah and Betty Sue vowed to spend some time this weekend making more polyhedra with which to adorn their room (maybe they'll start a craze?). Several of us old-timers hung out well after class was over, finishing off particularly large polyhedra and chatting about next semester's schedules.

A moment of crowing: I've won two of these six over as Math majors, and I've still got hopes for a third!

Another member of my morning section approached me last weekend regarding a Math major, and I was heartened to hear while speaking with him after class on Friday that he was convinced in part because of this blog. Orville, you have no idea how happy that makes me! Welcome aboard! Any questions you've got about the major, please ask. I like to think that my approachability and others' is part of what makes our department and our major such a popular one, and such a strong choice. I really do believe that ours is not only one of the best programs on the campus, but also the friendliest.

Going backward in time...on Friday afternoon I spent an hour with a couple of my colleagues in talking over Chapters 3 and 4 of Bob Moses's Radical equations. Both remain somewhat cynical, one regarding the entire venture, another regarding the relevance of the Civil Rights Movement in all of this math talk. For instance, one doubted the strength of the "ball bouncing" analogy invoked by Moses: if you want to get their (the kids') attention, says Moses, go to the corner and start bouncing a ball. At first they might not take notice, but gradually they'll come, and they'll ask questions to find out what it's all about, and before long you'll have a game going. "I can't really see myself bouncing the ball," my colleague admitted.

"I don't think Moses's point is that every person reading this book has to be a ball-bouncer," my other colleague pointed out. "Everyone has a part to play in this, and many people will be acting behind the scenes in some organizational capacity, you don't have to stand on the streetcorner with a ball."

"I don't think Moses anticipates that every person reading this book is going to rise up and become a part of the movement," I added. "If for every ten people who read the book only one hops aboard, then that's fine."

Something is better than nothing, someone better than than no one.

I feel that our discussion was a good one, and it's helping me to understand the weaknesses of Moses's approach, as well as its strengths.

This past week I approached the director of the Teaching Fellows program at UNCA, asking her if she thinks she'd be able to interweave a reading of Moses with her program, much as she did with Jonathan Kozol's The shame of the nation last year. I've yet to have a real-time conversation with her on the matter, but from our one e-mail exchange I think she might be up to the collaboration. I'd love to get some of my students on-board with the reading circles. How 'bout it, readers, are you up for it? (Don't try to hide: too many of you have outted yourselves as regular readers for me to think you're not out there!)

I've had some more thoughts about what a more learner-centered Calc I class might look like...having been reminded this past semester just how loathsome "word problems" are to math-minded freshpeople, perhaps it would be best if they spend a semester never seeing a problem that isn't a "word problem." That is, from Day One through Day Sixty (or however many days there are), every example considered would be embedded in the context of some application, no matter how simple or straightforward. No computation would be without at least some interpretation requiring a modicum of extractive analysis. Sure, it would be a bear at first, but the students would grow stronger and stronger as the semester wore on, and by the time they'd get to topics in which "word problems" are traditionally replete (related rates?), it would be nothing new to them, and they'd breeze on through.

Something to think about.

The difficulty, clearly, would come in fitting computations classically done for their own sakes out with realistic applications. I ain't despairing. It can be done, it'll just be difficult.

By the way, for those keeping score at home: I don't think I'm arguing for a return to a "reform" curriculum for calculus. I'm not, for instance, suggesting that the formal definition of a derivative be put off for weeks beyond its natural point of introduction. I'm suggesting that a more "traditional" curriculum be retooled to accommodate meaningful and motivating examples.

Before I close this post, I should mention that tomorrow we try Newton v. Leibniz. I'm happy in that I think both of the primary parties in the trial, in both classes, have done a good job in preparing. The worst-case scenario would have involved Newton and his team damning the torpedoes and cruising ahead with full sail while Leibniz et al. drifted around in front of them on a chunk of creosote-soaked flotsam.

We'll see how it turns out. For the time being, I've got some Mathematica code to write to help me out with my research, and I promised a few Calc I kiddies that I'd try to slap together a practice version of the third mid-semester exam, to be handed out this coming Thursday.

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