Category Archives: Abstract algebra

The semester in review

Plot of the vector field f(x,y) = (-y,x).

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I’ve made it to the end of another semester. Classes ended on Friday, and we have final exams this coming week. It’s been a long and full semester, as you can see by the relative lack of posting going on here since around October. How did things go?

Well, first of all I had a record course load this time around — four different courses, one of which was the MATLAB course that was brand new and outside my main discipline; plus an independent study that was more like an undergraduate research project, and so it required almost as much prep time from me as a regular course.

The Functions and Models class (formerly known as Pre-calculus) has been one of my favorites to teach here, and this class was no exception. We do precalculus a bit differently here, focusing on using functions as data modeling tools, so the main meat of the course is simply looking at data and asking, Are the data linear? If not, are they best fit by a logarithmic, exponential, or power function? Or a polynomial? And what should be the degree of that polynomial? And so on. I enjoy this class because it’s primed for the kind of studio teaching that I’ve come to enjoy. I just bring in some data I’ve found, or which the students have collected, and we play with the data. And these are mainly students who, by virtue of having placed below calculus on our placement exam, have been used to a dry, lecture-oriented math environment, and it’s very cool to see them light up and have fun with math for a change. It was a small class (seven students) and we had fun and learned a lot.

The Calculus class was challenging, as you can tell from my boxplots posts (first post, second post). The grades in the class were nowhere near where I wanted them to be, nor for the students (I hope). I think every instructor is going to have a class every now and then where this happens, and the challenge is to find the lesson to learn and then learn them. If you read those two boxplots posts, you can see some of the lessons and information that I’ve gleaned, and in the fall when I teach two sections of this course there could be some significant changes with respect to getting more active work into the class and more passive work outside the class.

Linear Algebra was a delight. This year we increased the credit load of this class from three hours to four, and the extra hour a week has really transformed what we can do with the course. I had a big class of 15 students (that’s big for us), many of whom are as sharp as you’ll find among undergraduates, and all of whom possess a keen sense of humor and a strong work ethic that makes learning a difficult subject quite doable. I’ll be posting later about their application projects and poster session, which were both terrific.

Computer Tools for Problem Solving (aka the MATLAB course) was a tale of two halves of the semester. The first half of the semester was quite a struggle — against a relatively low comfort level around technology with the students and against the students’ expectations for my teaching. But I tried to listen to the students, giving them weekly questionnaires about how the class is going, and engaging in an ongoing dialogue about what we could be doing better. We made some changes to the course on the fly that didn’t dumb the course down but which made the learning objectives and expectations a lot clearer, and they responded extremely well. By the end of the course, I daresay they were having fun with MATLAB. And more importantly, I was receiving reports from my colleagues that those students were using MATLAB spontaneously to do tasks in those courses. That was the main goal of the course for me — get students to the point where they are comfortable and fluent enough with MATLAB that they’ll pull it up and use it effectively without being told to do so. There are some changes I need to make to next year’s offering of the course, but I’m glad to see that the students were able to come out of the course doing what I wanted them to do.

The independent study on finite fields and applications was quite a trip. Andrew Newman, the young man doing the study with me, is one of the brightest young mathematicians with whom I’ve worked in my whole career, and he took on the project with both hands from the very beginning. The idea was to read through parts of Mullen and Mummert to get basic background in finite field theory; then narrow down his reading to a particular application; then dive in deep to that application. Washington’s book on elliptic curves ended up being the primary text, though, and Andrew ended up studying elliptic curve cryptography and the Diffie-Hellman decision problem. Every independent study has a creative project requirement attached, and his was to implement the decision problem in Sage. He’s currently writing up a paper on his research and we hope to get it published in Mathematics Exchange. (Disclaimer: I’m on the editorial board of Math Exchange.) In the middle of the semester, Andrew found out that he’d been accepted into the summer REU on mathematical cryptology at Northern Kentucky University/University of Cincinnati, and he’ll be heading out there in a few weeks to study (probably) multivariate public-key systems for the summer. I’m extremely proud of Andrew and what he’s been able to do this semester — he certainly knows a lot more about finite fields and elliptic curve crypto than I do now.

In between all the teaching, here are some other things I was able to do:

  • Went to the ICTCM in Chicago and presented a couple of papers. Here’s the Prezi for the MATLAB course presentation. Both of those papers are currently being written up for publication in the conference proceedings.
  • Helped with hosting the Indiana MAA spring meetings at our place, and I finished up my three-year term as Student Activities Coordinator by putting together this year’s Indiana College Mathematics Competition.
  • Did a little consulting work, which I can’t really talk about thanks to the NDA I signed.
  • I got a new Macbook Pro thanks to my college’s generous technology grant system. Of course Apple refreshed the Macbook Pro lineup mere weeks later, but them’s the breaks.
  • I’m sure there’s more, but I’ve got finals on the brain right now.

In another post I’ll talk about what’s coming up for me this summer and look ahead to the fall.

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Filed under Abstract algebra, Calculus, Inverted classroom, Life in academia, Linear algebra, Math, MATLAB, Personal, Teaching, Vocation

Courses and “something extra”

Some of the most valuable courses I took while I was in school were so because, in addition to learning a specific body of content (and having it taught well), I picked up something extra along the way that turned out to be just as cool or valuable as the course material itself. Examples:

  • I was a psychology major at the beginning of my undergraduate years and made it into the senior-level experiment design course as a sophomore. In that course I learned how to use SPSS (on an Apple IIe!). That was an “extra” that I really enjoyed, perhaps moreso than the experiment I designed. (I wish I still knew how to use it.)
  • In my graduate school differential geometry class (I think that was in 1995), we used Mathematica to plot torus knots and study their curvature and torsion. Learning Mathematica and how to use it for mathematical investigations were the “something extra” that I took from the course. Sadly, the extras have outlived my knowledge of differential geometry. (Sorry, Dr. Ratcliffe.)
  • In the second semester of my graduate school intro abstract algebra class, my prof gave us an assignment to write a computer program to calculate information about certain kinds of rings. This was a small assignment in a class full of big ideas, but I had to go back and re-learn my Pascal in order to write the program, and the idea of writing computer programs to do algebra was a great “extra” that again has stuck with me.

Today I really like to build in an “extra”, usually having something to do with technology, into every course I teach. In calculus, my students learn Winplot, Excel, and Wolfram|Alpha as part of the course. In linear algebra this year I am introducing just enough MATLAB to be dangerous. I use Geometers Sketchpad in my upper-level geometry class, and one former student became so enamored with the software that he started using it for everything, and is now considered the go-to technology person in the school where he teaches. In an independent study I am doing with one of my students on finite fields, I’m having him learn SAGE and do some programming with it. These “extras” often provide an element of fun and applicability to the material, which might be considered dry or monotonous if it’s the only thing you do in the class.

What kinds of “extras” were standouts for you in your coursework? If you’re a teacher, what kinds of “extras” are you using, or would you like to use, in your classes?

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Filed under Abstract algebra, Calculus, Computer algebra systems, Education, Geometers Sketchpad, Geometry, Linear algebra, Math, MATLAB, Sage, Teaching, Technology, Wolfram|Alpha

How to convert a “backwards” proof into a “forwards” proof

Dave Richeson at Division By Zero wrote recently about a “proof technique” for proving equalities or inequalities that is far too common: Starting with the equality to be proven and working backwards to end at a true statement. This is a technique that is almost a valid way to prove things, but it contains — and engenders — serious flaws in logic and the concept of proof that can really get students into trouble later on.

I left a comment there that spells out my  feelings about why this technique is bad. What I wanted to focus on here is something I also mentioned in the comments, which was that it’s so easy to take a “backwards” proof and turn it into a “forwards” one that there’s no reason not to do it.

Take the following problem: Prove that, for all natural numbers n,

1 + 2 + 2^2 + \cdots + 2^n = 2^{n+1} - 1

This is a standard exercise using mathematical induction. The induction step is trivial; focus on the induction step. Here we assume that 1 + 2 + 2^2 + \cdots + 2^k = 2^{k+1} - 1 for all natural numbers less than or equal to k and then prove:

1 + 2 + 2^2 + \cdots + 2^{k+1} = 2^{k+2} - 1

Here we have to prove two expressions are equal. Here’s what the typical “backwards” proof would look like (click to enlarge):


A student may well come up with this as his/her proof. It’s not a bad initial draft of a proof. Everything we need to make a totally correct proof is here. But the backwards-ness of it — all stemming from the first line, where we have assumed what we are trying to prove — needs fixing. Here’s how.

First, note that all the important and correct mathematical steps are taking place on the left-hand sides of the equations, and the right-hand sides are the problem here. So delete all the right-hand sides of the equals signs and the final equals sign.

Next, since the problem with the original proof was that we started with an “equation” that was not known to be true,  eliminate any step that involved doing something to both sides. That would be line 4 in this proof. This might involve some re-working of the steps, in this case the trivial task of re-introducing a -1 in the final steps:

You could reverse these first two steps — eliminate all “both sides” actions and then get rid of the left-hand sides.

Then, we need to make it look nice. So for n = 1 to the end, move the (n+1)^\mathrm{st} left-hand side and justification to the n^\mathrm{th} right-hand side:


Now we have a correct proof that does not start by assuming the conclusion. It’s shorter, too. Really the main thing wrong with the “backwards” proof is the repeated — and, notice, unnecessary — assertion that everything is equal to the final expression. Remove that assertion and the correct “forwards” proof is basically right there looking at you.

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Filed under Abstract algebra, Geometry, Math, Problem Solving

Free textbooks: It can be done

The last time I taught abstract algebra, I used no textbook but rather my own homemade notes. That went reasonably well, but in doing initial preps for teaching the course again this coming fall I realized my notes needed a serious overhaul; and since I’m playing stay-at-home dad to three kids under 6 this summer, this is looking more like a sabbatical project than something I can get done before August. So last month I set about auditioning textbooks.

I looked at the usual suspects — the excellent book by Joe Gallian which I’ve used before and really liked, Hungerford’s undergraduate text*, Rotman — but in the end,  I went with Abstract Algebra: Theory and Applications by Tom Judson. I would say it’s comparable to Gallian, with a little more flexibility in the topic sequencing and a greater, more integrated treatment of applications to coding theory and cryptography. (This last was something I was really looking for.) There’s even a free companion to the book which incorporates Sage, which I am sorely tempted to use as well because learning Sage has been a pet project of mine.

But what’s really different about this book is that it’s free, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. I am having the bookstore prepare print copies for the students — I asked the students if they wanted a print version in addition to the free PDF’s online, and they said “yes” — which the bookstore will sell for a whopping $16.95, just enough to cover the costs of copying and 3-hole punching the 400+ pages of the book. I’m happy because I found a book that really fits my needs; the students are happy because they get a good book too, for a tremendous bang-to-buck ratio.

In the long and contentious comment thread for my post about James Stewart’s new $24M mansion, I suggested that Stewart should consider topping off his impressive (and apparently lucrative) teaching and writing career by making his Calculus book freely available online for anybody who wants it. That suggestion was met with shocked incredulity: “If you had any idea how much work it was to write and maintain a textbook, you’d never consider making it free.” Well, I’m happy to report that hard work and good writing need not necessarily be mutually exclusive with giving it away.

In fact, as more well-written textbooks appear for free online — and there were even more free abstract algebra e-books I did not end up selecting — the commercial market might find itself in trouble.

* Actually, I requested the Hungerford algebra book, complete with a crystal-clear note that I needed to have it in hand by April 10 in order to be able to adopt it in time for our bookstore. To this date I have not received it. Another problem with commercial textbooks: the distribution model for review copies is dreadful. I’m always receiving multiple copies of books I neither need nor am interested in, and not getting the books I do need and am interested in.

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Filed under Abstract algebra, Calculus, Education, Teaching, Textbook-free, Textbooks

Keeping things in context

Part of Article 131 in the first edition (1801...
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I’ve started reading through Stewart and Tall’s book on algebraic number theory, partly to give myself some fodder for learning Sage and partly because it’s an area of math I’d like to explore. I’m discovering a lot about algebra in the process that I should have known already. For example, I didn’t know until reading this book that the Gaussian integers were invented to study quadratic reciprocity. For me, the Gaussian integers were always just this abstract construction that  Gauss invented evidently for his own amusement (which maybe isn’t too far off from the truth) and which exists primarily so that I would have something to do in abstract algebra class. Here are the Gaussian integers! Now, go and find which ones are units, whether this is a principal ideal domain, and so on. Isn’t this fun?

Well, yes, actually it is fun for me, but that’s because I like abstract nonsense and I like just constructing rings out of nowhere and seeing what works and what doesn’t. But this approach to algebra is a lot harder to convince others to adopt, particularly college math majors whom I teach, most of whom struggle with abstraction. For them, any connection, no matter how tenuous, to the real world is a comfort and a reason to study. Quadratic residues aren’t exactly in the same league as designing airplanes in terms of “real world” utility, but it’s at least something that’s easy enough to understand and explain. Even if you care nothing for real world utility, it’s important to know why something was invented when you are setting about studying it. Otherwise you learn a subject in abstraction and without connections to its roots.

In fact, it seems like a lot of what we take as being canonical in abstract algebra was invented to study number theory. And yet, I have never taken a number theory course, and the number theory that was included in my studies of algebra was added mainly to set up the study of abstract groups and rings, as if to say that number theory exists to make studying algebra easier instead of the other way around as appears to be the case. And it’s not because I had a bad algebra education; I studied under some of the best algebraists around, but I never got the memo that abstract algebra was for something. I learned algebra mainly in isolation for the sole purpose of calculating homotopy groups. Likewise, my entire grad school training was focused on topology, which is supposedly a branch of geometry, but the only course in geometry I have in my background was Mrs. Buttrey’s class at William James Junior High School in the eighth grade — and that didn’t exactly give me the disciplinary perspective I needed to put topology in its proper context. (Even though it was a really good geometry class — thanks Mrs. B!)

I’ve been thinking that my post about the, er, pedagogically challenged way that Stewart Calculus does its examples about instantaneous velocity is really about the idea that you need to make sure that a person learning a new idea has some reason to learn it, before you give it to them in full complexity. Or at least before they’ve finished a course in it. Perhaps this idea extends to all of mathematics and maybe even beyond.

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Filed under Abstract algebra, Calculus, Education, Math, Number theory, Sage

Fun with finite fields

For those of you interested, I have a review of Finite Fields and Applications by Gary Mullen and Carl Mummert now posted at MAA Reviews. You can get to it here, although you have to be an MAA member to view it, or else pay $25/year for a nonmember subscription.

If you aren’t an MAA member and don’t want to pay, the bottom line of the review is: It’s a pretty good book. Very good for mathematicians, grad students, and advanced undergrads. Normal undergrads will need patience and perhaps a lot of help with the initial chapter, which is a lot of serious algebra which unfortunately doesn’t appear to make that much of an appearance in later chapters when the applications show up. And what’s with the three-paragraph treatment of AES? On the other hand, lots of neat stuff about Latin squares, including a cryptosystem based on mutually orthogonal Latin squares which I’d never seen before. 

This review was one of the things I was trying to get done last week. It’s gratifying to see a publication process go this fast — I sat down on Tuesday and wrote the review; emailed it in on Wednesday; and it was put up at the MAA yesterday. 

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Filed under Abstract algebra, Math, Scholarship

Questions about the algebra course

Jackie asked a series of good questions about the textbook-free modern algebra course and some of the student outcomes I was seeing in it. I tried to respond to those in the comments, but things started to get lengthy, so instead I will get to them here.

Do you think the results are only a result of a textbook free course?

To repeat what I said in the comments: I think the positives in the course come not so much from the fact that we didn’t have a textbook, but more from the fact that the course was oriented toward solving problems rather than covering material. There was a small core of material that we had to cover, since the seniors were getting tested on it, but mostly we spent our time in class presenting, dissecting, and discussing problems. We didn’t cover as much as I would have liked, but this is a price I decided to pay at the outset.

Most traditional textbooks don’t lend themselves well to this kind of class design. The ratio of text to problems in a typical textbook is probably something like 5:1 — a lot higher than that in some books. When you have a book in the course, it almost forces itself into the center of the class universe and everything tends to revolve around it, and take on its flavor. When the book spends most, almost all, of its pages on stuff for students to read rather than on problems for students to solve, then I guess it’s possible to have a problem-solving oriented class, but you’re going to be swimming upstream the whole way.

It works better, I think, to have no central book — and instead, provide problems via the course notes with just enough information to solve the problems. And if the students need more information, make it an assignment for library research or web queries.

Were there any negative outcomes? Anything you didn’t like as a result of choosing to structure the course in this manner?

There are some important algebra topics, in rings and particularly in fields, that are not going to get the time they really deserve. And I had to cut short or cut out some topics in group theory that are normally standard fare. At least, I see this as a negative; whether it really makes a difference in the long run is yet to be determined.

The way I select students to do course tasks in class basically involves randomly ordering the students and having them attempt the problems one after the other. It seemed like several times, students who had not presented much ended up first on the list on the days they didn’t have something and last on the list on the days they did. Call it bad luck or Murphy’s Law or what-have-you; but I didn’t like how there was no mechanism for making sure the lower-scoring students got more chances to work.

Some students in the class still struggle with basic problem-solving skills and writing proofs. I think they have enough education to carry out successful problem-solving on proofs most of the time. But not having me lecture has meant that they don’t get to see professionally put-together proofs very often unless they go do some reading.

And I think that this course structure caused stress and even ill will among the students who were not used to having so much personal responsibility in their college work. I think that’s an unintended consequence of implementing a course design that is basically sound; I regret that it happened, and I’d like students to have a more uniformly positive experience in the class, but I’m not going to change the basic course design.

Would you do this again?

You bet, although I believe this way of running the class works in some situations and wouldn’t work in others. I thought about running my differential equations class next semester like this, but that course is so focused on methods that a blind application of this course structure onto that course doesn’t seem appropriate. Maybe I’ll come up with some variant that works.

What would you keep the same? What would you change?

I would definitely keep my method for assigning problems to students, my rubric for grading course tasks, and just the overall procedure for running the class sessions that I used. And I’d keep the feature where students get to choose the weights on the various assessments.

I’d do a little more with the course wiki. Right now students are expected to write up their solutions to course note tasks on the wiki, but there is no point value in doing so nor a penalty for not doing so. The exams are open-wiki, though, so there is some incentive for writing results up well. But I think I would make the posting of solutions mandatory and enforce the rule.

I’d also try to have a complete set of notes before the course began. I have been writing things as I go, and it’s led to some snafus I could have avoided.

I might try writing the course notes so that rings and fields come first.

I’d seriously consider having proof techniques be offered as the subject of weekly help sessions or additional course work. Some students are still struggling with basic problem-solving techniques, and they really need more help than what they are asking for.

That’s that for the questions. Any more?

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Filed under Abstract algebra, Education, Math, Problem Solving, Teaching, Textbook-free, Uncategorized