Category Archives: Liberal arts math

Random Thursday thoughts

  1. I am giving a presentation on campus today on our trip to China to adopt our daughter. It’s a multi-media extravaganza, with photos, data graphs, video clips, and sound all rolled into a single Keynote presentation. It is the largest electronic presentation I have ever drawn up, clocking in at 8.74 Gb — yes, gigabytes. I’m going to have to buy an external hard drive just to back the thing up!
  2. Speaking of which, any suggestions on a 60 Gb external hard drive that plays well with Macs?
  3. Just gave course evaluations in GE 103. I am quite bummed out by the fact that about 10 of the 23 students in the class were absent, one of whom is by far the best student in the class and who has really enjoyed and learned a lot from the course (and therefore I was counting on his evaluation to offset others from more disaffected students). We put so much emphasis on student evaluations, but I’m not so sure students take these things very seriously.

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Filed under Apple, Education, Higher ed, Liberal arts math, Life in academia, Personal, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

Physics for poets

This article came out a few days ago, but I’ve been too busy around here to blog about it until now. The pseudonymous author argues against science classes for non-majors — “physics for poets”, as he calls it — on the basis that they are neither truly scientific in nature nor satisfying for students. Snippet:

I worry…that our approach to teaching science as a part of a liberal education is undermining the goals we have set for our classes. Despite the effort we put into providing classes that are both relevant and informative, I am troubled by the subtext of these classes. By their very existence, these classes send two damaging messages to students in other disciplines: first, that science is something alien and difficult, the exclusive province of nerds and geeks; and second, that we will happily accommodate their distaste for science and mathematics, by providing them with special classes that minimize the difficult aspects of the subject.

I think this is the right kind of concern for any kind of course in a liberal arts environment. You want to give students real experience in the classical fields of study, including science; a science course that deliberately avoids mathematical rigor of any sort or tries to sex up science so that it will “engage students where they are” hardly seems to be a real experience in any reasonable sense, no more than having a music course focused only on top 40 hits of 2005 can be considered a real music course — despite its relevance and student-friendliness.

The author and I share a context, namely that our small liberal arts colleges are in the midst of a radical revision of the liberal arts core. In fact, in 45 minutes, we are having a faculty meeting to vote on the new curriculum model which we will implement. Some of the proposed models have no lab science component; there is either nothing at all required for science, or else a “physics for poets” type class. Those proposals are uniformly at the bottom of my ballot. I want students to take a real science class, where they have to do actual lab work and run actual numbers and think about the quantitative (and otherwise) issues playing in to how the world works. Do the work of actual scientists, in other words, and not simply give up on science because you’re a humanities major that doesn’t like math.

Relating to math-avoidance inherent in the design of “physics for poets” classes, the author also takes a well-deserved shot at Richard Cohen, whose addle-headed nonsense about the uselessness of algebra was first ripped apart blogged about here:

It’s a sad commentary on the state of our society that a public intellectual (even a low-level one like Cohen) can write such a paragraph and be confident that it will be met with as many nods of agreement as howls of derision. If a scientist or mathematician were to say “I can handle simple declarative sentences all right (although not transitive verbs),” they could never expect to be taken seriously again. Illiteracy among the general public is viewed as a crisis, but innumeracy is largely ignored, because everybody knows that Math is Hard.

Unfortunately the author disappoints me with this:

People with political agendas are constantly peddling distorted views of science, from conspiracy theories regarding pharmaceutical companies and drug development, to industry-backed attempts to challenge the scientific findings regarding global climate change, to the well-documented attempts to force religion into science curricula under the guise of “intelligent design.” It’s more important than ever for our students to be able to understand and critically evaluate competing claims about science.

Did you get that? “Critically evaluate”. Sounds like the author might not be ready to be critical himself just yet. But the rest of the article is good enough to wink at that.

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Six things that I must make clearer to my students in the future

  1. I am not grading your answer; I am grading the process by which you get the answer. Hence, a correct answer with no justification is worth little to no credit (unless it’s “state the definition of…” or a multiple choice); and an incorrect answer that’s the result of a small glitch in an otherwise OK thought process is worth a lot.
  2. The solution to a problem must communicate clearly to the intended audience without necessitating further work on the audience’s part. This means you can’t skip steps gratuitously, your English has to be clear and well-constructed, and your overall solution has to make sense.
  3. Corollary to point 2: Yes, English grammar and syntax matters, even in a math class.
  4. Deadlines are in place in order to simulate the working world and to inculcate habits of responsibility. This is why I don’t take work that’s 15 minutes late; and why if you are working in groups and the person in the group who has the writeup skips class, the whole group gets a 0. It’s not because I’m evil and like inflicting punishment on students.
  5. We use a lot of technology, and when we do this, you must expect screw-ups that are out of your control. But what is in your control is time. You must give yourself enough time when using technology to fix the problems that will inevitably arise, whether it’s an email that mysteriously doesn’t send or a bug in your Maple code that is giving you nonsensical output.
  6. Grades are information; so are my comments on your graded work. Your work gives me information on what you know. My comments give you information on where the gaps in your knowledge are. When used properly, graded work can create an inward spiral at the end of which is a very well-formed grasp of the material in your brain. When treated like points in a basketball game, grades are useless.

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Wednesday morning blog-bites

I’ve got a full day of catching up on grading and getting planned ahead, so I’m going to do all the day’s blogging in bite-size form right now:

  • Does anybody know if there is a quick way to make either my iPod or iTunes tell me how many songs I have in my library that are in a particular genre? For example, how many songs I have in “Rock”, how many are in “Classical”, etc.? I want to use that info for a probability lab in GE 103. **Update: There’s an elegant solution in the comments. I also realized that I can determine this straight from the iPod by clicking on Music > Genres > [insert genre here] > All > All [albums] > All [songs] > Play. In other words, have the iPod start to play all the songs in a particular genre; then looking at the screen, which will say “1 of [however many songs are in the genre]” when the first song comes up.
  • I discussed the idea of eliminating midterm grade reports with my dean the other day. His initial response was that it would hurt retention. I countered that I’m not suggesting that we have students no longer check in with professors and advisors when their grades are bad; just that the students should bear the responsibility of keeping up with their grades. His response to that was that students have no experience with this kind of self-monitoring, and we need a system to teach them how to do it. Here’s an interesting intersection of political inclinations with college policy. He and I agree on the problem, but whereas my quasi-libertarian solution to the problem is to allocate responsibility to the individual and provide incentives for responsible behavior, his quasi(?)-liberal solution is to create a system. Which approach do you think works better? I suspect the libertarian approach, but I honestly don’t know.
  • In talking about the midterm grade thing with my students, many of them echo Jami’s comment that a lot of their professors simply don’t use the technology available to them such as the online gradebook on Blackboard. So my claim that they have 24/7 access to their grades becomes tenuous in those courses (although I guess they could just hold on to their graded work that’s been handed back). It sort of blows my mind that my college spends upwards of $30K/year to maintain a Blackboard license and yet there are colleagues of mine who don’t even use the simplest and most useful feature of it, namely the gradebook. I think it’s impractical to require faculty to use course management software, but I wonder what kinds of incentives the college could provide for profs who make a good use of it? Your thoughts?
  • Speaking of Blackboard and how expensive it is, we’re currently test-driving some alternative systems here, like this one. I’ve not had the time to really get into the different packages we’ve installed as demos, but once I do I would like to blog about them. Stay tuned.
  • Speaking of interesting technology, this article about out-of-the-box uses of RSS blew my mind and has my imagination at work thinking about how RSS could be used in college pedagogy. More on that later, too.

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I couldn’t resist

Lab 6 for GE 103 this week had students making scatterplots in Excel, fitting them with linear and order-2 polynomial trendlines, and examining which one fits better. They are instructed to look at the R-squared values for each trendline and determine on that basis which is a better fit.

One student had a typo when asked about the better fit:

The R squad for the polynomial is better.

To which I replied:

Is that anything like The A-Team?

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Do you go to college if money is no object?

**Updated below.

The bonus question on last week’s feedback journals for GE 103 said:

Suppose you get a phone call fifteen minutes from now, informing you that a distant and extremely rich relative has died and left you his entire estate as an inheritance. Your financial needs are now met for the remainder of your life. What would the next year of your life look like?

What I was really interested in seeing was how many students would say they would stay in college, versus how many would drop out. In other words, I was asking in a sort of disguised way: Are you in college for money or security? Or are you here for something else that money alone can’t buy?

I was a little surprised when nobody came out and said anything about staying in college one way or the other. A few students said they’d pay off their student loans, which sort of makes it sound like they would stay in college. But nobody said “I’d finish my degree”, and nobody said “I’d drop out and see the world”. One student said he’d transfer to a bigger school. (What that has to do with monetary needs isn’t clear to ne, since all the bigger schools are cheaper than we are already.)

I think this means one of two things. Either staying in college is simply a foregone conclusion for these students, so obvious of a fact that they didn’t feel like they needed to state it; or they simply didn’t consider the idea that college wouldn’t be necessary for their financial needs anymore, and if they’d been a little more creative in their thinking then they’d have left college behind and boarded the next plane to Tahiti.

**Update: One journal entry I mistakenly did not open on Friday said this:

I would stay in school! I want to have defined my own success and EARNING a college degree is how I could do that!

Not a bad answer.

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Not-so-simple random samples

One of the questions on the homework for Lab 3 for GE 103 (which covered statistical estimation and random sampling) asked students to come up with potential methods of collecting random samples from a given population, and then discuss the potential difficulties and biases that method may produce. One of the populations given was “all the trees in a certain US national park”, and students were asked to think of how they’d select a simple random sample of size 100.

The most common answer: Number all the trees in the park. Then have a computer randomly select 100 of them.

Hmmm… do you think there might be just a teeny problem with physically numbering every single tree in a US national park?

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Filed under Liberal arts math, Math, Teaching