Friday, July 11, 2014

Service-Learning and Making a Difference

a guest post by Karl-Dieter Crisman


Crisman at the 17th Annual Legacy of R. L. Moore—Inquiry-Based 
Learning Conference (photo Kirk Tuck/EAF)
When I teach a new course, or return to a course after a number of years, one of the most exciting parts is to start with that clean slate. What new text can I choose? Is there a topic I can create my own materials for, to "do it right"? Is there some unifying project I can use to help give my students a broader vision of what the course really is about?

Over the past few decades, in many disciplines the answer to that last question has been to incorporate a service-learning component of some kind. At some institutions, this is even being mandated in various ways. And the words sound nice: Service seems useful, and we certainly want learning. But what is service-learning, and what does it have to do with math?

At its core, service-learning involves students participating in some useful service to the community, but in such a way that the service is itself a learning experience directly related to the content of the course. As an example, having students volunteer at a food bank would be service, and having them write a research paper about distribution of government and private largesse would be learning; students working at the food bank and then incorporating that experience as part of a research paper on the topic would be service-learning.

In addition to "feeling right" for many instructors, there is a growing research literature about benefits of service-learning in a wide range of disciplines. However, many readers of this blog will probably echo Charles Hadlock, the editor of the MAA's book on this subject: "Unfortunately, the mathematical sciences are sometimes perceived as having a more difficult task to incorporate service activities in the curriculum."  Campus Compact, a major clearinghouse, has only two syllabi for math on its website. In one survey of attitudes[*], an anonymous math professor says, "I can think of no service projects in the community that will enhance student learning of the abstract reasoning skills they should be learning in mathematics."

It is true that there is not the same body of plug-in activities as there may be in many other disciplines, and a paucity of resources, published online or in print. But in fact there are many such activities, appropriate for a wide variety of courses. A representative recent sampling I am personally acquainted with includes:

  • Analyzing energy use and sustainability practices on campus (quantitative reasoning)
  • Assessing volunteer versus state-provided aid in a local fire (intro statistics)
  • Helping local American Diabetes Association focus fundraising (finite math)
  • Tutoring high school precalculus students (calculus)
  • Creating math fun fair games (upper-level math and math ed)
  • Designing a new layout for a food pantry (upper-level modeling)
  • Providing feedback on cash flow for a local non-profit (upper-level modeling)
  • Analyzing (scrubbed) freshman orientation data (upper-level math/stats)
  • Running a math camp for middle-schoolers (graduate students)

A math game event is service; what are your ideas for turning this 
into service-learning?
If any of these ideas intrigue you or get you thinking about your own ideas, there are several great resources to examine. I would personally recommend Hadlock's MAA book, which gathers many more wonderful ideas together, and the recent special issue of PRIMUS on the topic (disclosure: I am a co-editor). I have gathered presentations from a contributed paper session at the Joint Meetings as well on a very minimalist website, and other journals in statistics, math ed, and service have related articles on occasion.

There are caveats, of course. First, it is unwise to attempt a project without some administrative support. Hopefully your campus has an office of community engagement or something similar to help find a community partner, and to assist in interacting with them, setting realistic goals, and so forth. Similarly, you will want to know that you have at least tacit approval to try this from your own department, at least as a pilot—especially if it is required of all students in a given course. It helped a lot for me to have both forms of support at Gordon College from the start. 

Third, read case studies and guides. From writing syllabi to managing students to meaningful evaluation, it is well worth planning things out carefully first. That said, I can't think of any example where the first offering went so smoothly that it didn't require mid-course correction, so the potential mentor will need to be open to last-minute changes.

Finally, as one may note from the list of sample projects, there is a big need for more tested ideas, particularly in proof-based courses (think abstract algebra), or those where directly using techniques for modeling for partners would not be appropriate for beginners (like an intro differential equations course). If you have an idea, do not be shy! Try it out, and then write about it for some venue (an article in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of MAA FOCUS was an inspiration to me).

I'd like to thank Dana and Angie for giving me this opportunity. Math ed does matter to those in the university context, and it's about so much more than targeted pedagogical strategies; the values we express in teaching do come home to roost in our students, in more ways than we can realize. And this can make a difference not only in the lives of those served, but also in many deep ways in the lives of our students.



[*] See the first article in volume 9 (2002) of the Michigan Journal for Community Service Learning.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Fear is the mind-killer

by Dana Ernst

My favorite conference of the year, the Legacy of R. L. Moore — IBL Conference, kicked off last Thursday. The day began for me with an introduction to IBL mini-workshop facilitated by Michael Starbird. For our first activity, Starbird had the participants discuss in small groups the following question.

What do you want your students to keep from their education?


After a few minutes of brainstorming, groups shared their ideas. Here’s the list we generated (I’m paraphrasing):
  • Love of learning
  • Persistence/perseverance
  • Ability to teach yourself
  • Ability to communicate verbally and in writing
  • Independence
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-direction
  • Ability to collaborate
  • Curiosity
  • Confidence
  • Receptivity to different perspectives
  • Appreciation of failure
  • Lack of fear
Do you notice anything interesting about the items on this list? None of them has anything to do with mathematics! Moreover, as one participant keenly observed, one of the major obstacles to most of the items on the list is related to the final item: namely, fear.

Upon hearing this, I was immediately reminded of a quote from one of my favorite sci-fi books, Dune.

Fear is the mind-killer.

This line is part of the litany against fear, which is an incantation used throughout Frank Herbert’s Dune universe by the Bene Gesserit to focus their minds and calm themselves in times of peril. Here is the full litany:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

I believe (and there is plenty of evidence to support this) that inquiry-based learning (IBL) provides an optimal framework for students to develop the skills on the list above. Yet, it stands to reason that this method will expose our students’ weaknesses in these areas. Some manifestation of fear is often an obstruction to individuals addressing their weaknesses. As instructors, how can we help students minimize the fear that blocks their development?

It might be time for me to add the litany against fear to my syllabi.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Hooking the Student

a guest post by Jeff Rushall


Six years ago, I told my chair that our Department of Mathematics and Statistics here at Northern Arizona University needed something new to inspire our majors. I suggested a “Brown Bag Seminar,” structured much like what many of us encountered while in college: a one-hour lunchtime colloquium targeting undergraduates. I chose several topics that I felt would “hook” students, including Cantor sets, magic squares, and Latin squares. The brown bag seminars began in the fall of 2008, with expectations—at least on my part—very high. The rooms, times, and topics were set. The advertising flyers were posted. I was convinced that the combination of my wit and charm together with some sexy mathematical content would be a huge hit. 

I was very wrong. 

The audiences were small; after an opening crowd of 18, the attendance numbers slowly dwindled to single digits by the end of that fall semester. 

Down but not out, and still convinced that the basic idea was a good one, I went straight to the main source of my inspiration: my students. I sat down with three of my favorite students (to protect the innocent, I’ll call them Kathryn, Charlie, and Natalie) and picked their brains about how to organize my vision (in retrospect, this was the best idea I’d had in years!). These and other students made the following suggestions:

  • Hold the seminar on a Friday afternoon. 
  • Give the gathering a snappier name. 
  • Limit the talks to about 30 minutes. 
  • Expose the audience to more than just math to entice their attendance, such as…
  • Interview a faculty member each week.  
We retooled, and in January of 2009, FAMUS (the Friday Afternoon Mathematics Undergraduate Seminar) was born. Today, 11 semesters later, FAMUS is thriving. Our weekly gathering hosts an average of 35 audience members, and although several faculty and graduate students attend each week, the majority of attendees are undergraduates. 

Selecting talk topics for FAMUS is without question the easiest aspect of organizing and running FAMUS. The proper balance of talks on mathematics (ranging from the Tower of Hanoi to Euler bricks to the St. Petersburg paradox), on mathematicians (Hilbert, Ramanujan, Erdös, to name but three), on mathematics education (flipped classrooms, the mathematics “common core” of Ireland, etc.) and various math-themed topics (AP Calculus exams, summer projects/trips/activities of our faculty, international teaching opportunities in mathematics) seems to keep things fresh. And nearly all FAMUS talks end with open questions, designed to encourage students to ponder the possibility of beginning some sort of undergraduate research or independent study project. 

But for many students, the highlight of FAMUS is the weekly interview of a faculty member. Structured à la the interviews on the popular Inside the Actors Studio series on the Bravo Network, the list of 16 questions remains the same each week. These questions and responses paint a broad portrait of the guest faculty member, and this is followed by a closing open-question-and-answer session that can last up to 30 minutes. 

During the last 5.5 years, FAMUS audiences have ranged from a low of 15 (a dreadful weather day) to 71 (a former NAU graduate student and current research fellow at Harvard was the guest speaker). The 133 FAMUS gatherings have been evenly split: one third featured undergraduate presenters, one third have been given by fellow faculty and graduate student talks, and one third have been my own talks. 

FAMUS does take time: planning and setting up the semester schedule, acquiring appropriate snacks (coffee and cookies are for our departmental faculty seminars; we serve popcorn, chocolate, and student-friendly beverages like Mountain Dew), and promoting and advertising has its share of twists. And yes, preparing appropriate and entertaining talks is not a quick process. But the results speak for themselves. Of course, injecting some humor into FAMUS talks helps. For instance, our recent semester-ending FAMUS featured a slide containing just some of the cartoon images that have appeared in past presentations (can you spot the picture of one of the usual authors of this blog?). 

Have we hooked students? Yes. Do all of our majors attend FAMUS? Not remotely! But students who regularly show up at FAMUS each Friday generally refer to FAMUS as their favorite part of the week. In fact, regular attendees at FAMUS help to advertise, set up, clean up, and they do so happily, even late on a Friday afternoon. And FAMUS is influencing our student population: We are attracting current math majors at our weekly gathering, while at the same time enticing prospective math majors and minors, and promoting undergraduate research, all while simultaneously advertising careers in mathematics, most notably opportunities to attend graduate school in mathematics, statistics, and mathematics education. 

Kathryn, Charlie, and Natalie helped us start something special here in our department in the spring of 2009. Notably, none of these three students were mathematics majors when they began their undergraduate careers at NAU, but FAMUS worked its magic on each of them, as they all graduated with undergraduate degrees in mathematics. All three chose to pursue graduate careers in mathematics, and all are at various stages of Ph.D. programs at rather different locations (Kathryn at Bryn Mawr, Charlie at the University of Montana, and Natalie at the University of Colorado at Boulder). 

I cannot say that every department needs something like FAMUS, and I do not claim that what we have created is something that can be duplicated in a like manner at other institutions. But I can say that FAMUS has become engrained in our department culture. Perhaps most importantly, FAMUS has provided our students with something that they perhaps didn’t even know that they wanted or needed: an activity that helps to foster a sense of community among our undergraduate majors, and a place to become exposed to the cool kind of math that hooked many of us as we began our own march towards careers in mathematics. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Love Math?

by Angie Hodge

This year Mathematics Awareness Month made me realize how in love I am with math. I became a teacher because I loved to teach, but recently I discovered I am equally in love with math.

How do we as mathematicians and mathematics educators help others to discover this passion (and in a timely manner, so that students take more mathematics courses)?

I will be the first to admit that Mathematics Awareness Month has never had a lot of meaning to me until this year. So what was so different about this time around? Well, this year I said yes to something (and often more than one something) math-related each week in April. The funny thing is I didn't even realize I had done this until about halfway through the month.

Each event could be a blog post in and of itself, but here are the highlights. Feel free to provide feedback on which events you would like to hear more about in future blogs. We love suggestions!

Dr. Betty Love leading a "Meet the Professor" series
talk on operations research.
At the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO), we kicked off Mathematics Awareness Month by getting to know one of our math professors, Dr. Betty Love, through a "Meet Your Professor" talk. Students got to learn about a UNO math professor both professionally and personally.

The UNO mathematics department also hosted two speakers, Dr. Bob Klein and Dr. Randy Cone. They each gave a "Cool Math Talk" for students and a "Math Teachers' Circle" session for local math teachers. All of these sessions both actively engaged and challenged the audiences.

I also spent four days at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics national conference. The week was filled with ideas to bring into the classroom for both university students and K-12 students. I held a gallery workshop on "Hands-on, Minds-on Calculus." In this workshop, teachers had a chance to try both unguided and guided activities that I do with my own calculus students. This included a game where they worked in groups to match differential equations to slope fields.

Mathematics Awareness Month for me was capped off with a five-day visit to the University of Colorado at Boulder to discuss ways to engage students in the learning of calculus.

Wow, that was a lot of extra-curricular math for one month. Instead of being exhausted from it, though, I was surprisingly re-energized!

This made me think back to my calculus students. For each of our guest speakers at UNO, I had several students who went to both talks (even the one for practicing teachers). For Dr. Klein’s talk, many of the students had spent an hour in the math help room before class, over an hour in class, an hour in Dr. Klein's "Cool Math Talk," and two hours at the Math Teachers' Circle. Then it hit me. They love math. They may not know it yet, but who spends that much time doing anything unless they enjoy it? It also hit me that, you know what? I, too, love math!

There are a few questions that come to mind when I think about this. What was it that held my students attention through so many hours of math events? What was it that made me want to set up and attend these math events? What can we do to help others "fall in love" with math? Here's one thought I had (and I look forward to hearing yours).

What did all of these events have in common? They all involved the audience. Dr. Love used mathematical humor and real life applications to keep the audience members engaged. Dr. Klein was on his toes modifying his sessions to fit his audience. Dr. Cone got the audience engaged in an IBL style competition to lead into each new portion of his talk.

So, what do you do to help others discover a passion for math?

Share your favorite story or technique with us! 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Encouraging Students to Tinker

by Dana Ernst

A few days ago I was in my office working on a research problem related to the combinatorics of Coxeter groups. I’ve been thinking about this problem off and on for a few years and haven’t made any real progress in quite some time. The last time I worked on the problem, I was feeling pretty discouraged. On this particular day, however, I was just enjoying the process and feeling blessed that part of my career includes hunting for and occasionally discovering new mathematics. Someone actually pays me to put my head in the clouds and do mathematics.

It had been a while since I worked on the problem, so I started by reviewing all the things I had tried previously. I thought, “now what?” I couldn’t think of anything new to try that I thought had any chance of actually working. At this point, I was reminded of a recent post by Moebius Noodles, titled "Make Mistakes on Purpose," that contains a wonderful quote by the author Neil Gaiman.
Make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes.
This quote comes at the very end of Gaiman’s excellent keynote address from the 2012 commencement at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. (I’ve included the whole address below.)

So, I set myself the task I trying to come up with clever mistakes. I intentionally followed what I expected to be dead ends. An hour later, I had several new insights. I still haven’t cracked the problem, but for the first time in a while I felt like I had made some headway.

This experience reminded me of something I’ve been pondering for a while in regards to teaching. How do we encourage students to tinker with mathematics? As a culture, it seems we are afraid of making mistakes. This seems especially bad when it comes to how most students approach mathematics. But making and then reflecting on mistakes is a huge part of learning. Just think about learning to walk or riding a bike. Babies are brave enough to take a first step even though they have no idea what will happen. My kids fell down a lot while learning to walk. But they kept trying.

I want my students to approach mathematics in the same way. Try stuff, see what happens, and if necessary, try again. But many of them resist tinkering. Too many students have been programmed to think that all problems are solvable, that there is exactly one way to approach each problem, and that if they can’t solve a problem in five minutes or less, they must be doing something wrong. But these are myths, and we must find ways to remove the misconceptions. The first step is to encourage risk taking.

A few months ago, Stan Yoshinobu addressed this topic over on The IBL Blog in a post titled "Destigmatizing Mistakes." I encourage you to read his whole post, but here is a highlight:
Productive mistakes and experimentation are necessary ingredients of curiosity and creativity. A person cannot develop dispositions to seek new ideas and create new ways of thinking without being willing to make mistakes and experiment. Instructors can provide frequent, engaging in-class activities that dispel negative connotations of mistakes, and simultaneously elevate them to their rightful place as a necessary component in the process of learning.
Here are a few related questions I have:
  • How do we encourage students to tinker with mathematics?
  •  How do we destigmatize mistakes in the mathematics classroom?
  • How do we encourage and/or reward risk taking?
  • What are the obstacles to addressing the items above and how do we remove these obstacles?

I have some ideas about how to tackle these issues, but I’m curious what ideas you might have. I’m hoping for a fruitful dialogue in the comments.

Here is Gaiman’s keynote address in its entirety. Trust me, it’s worth 20 minutes of your time.


You can find the transcript for his speech here.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Engaging in Inquiry-Based Learning

by Dana Ernst, Angie Hodge, and TJ Hitchman

Do you like teaching? Do you like learning about teaching? Is STEMath teaching your specialty? Do you want new ideas to engage students in your classrooms? Do you ever wonder how you can make outreach activities more hands-on?

It was all smiles at the 14th Legacy of R. L. Moore
Conference in 2011.
Well, wonder no more. This year’s Legacy of R. L. Moore and Inquiry-Based Learning Conference promises to be your dream destination summer “math-cation.” As the name suggests, the Moore Conference is devoted to inquiry-based learning (IBL), as well as the bequest of R. L. Moore, for whom the Moore Method is named. The Educational Advancement Foundation, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Academy of Inquiry-Based Learning generously subsidize the conference. If you are unfamiliar with IBL, check out our previous post, "What the Heck is IBL?" In general, the IBL community is an energetic group of mathematicians and mathematics educators who are passionate about the ways that students can actively explore and discover mathematics.

This year’s conference theme is “Engaging in Inquiry-Based Learning,” and it promises to be one of the most interactive conferences to date. The theme was chosen to encourage people to share their IBL ideas with others in an active manner. Everyone at the conference will get to experience IBL while learning about IBL. Pretty cool!

Whether one is new to IBL or has been trying IBL for years, there will be something for everyone at the conference. The excellent folks from the Discovering the Art of Mathematics project will kick off the conference with an engaging demonstration of IBL that will be educational to all IBL’ers.

Looking to take your IBL practice to the next level? Bill McKenna will host a grant writing workshop prior to the conference kickoff to help you learn to support your IBL ideas. The best part is that the cost is included in the conference fee. All you have to do is register!

Help us create the rest of the conference by submitting your abstracts for the parallel sessions. We have several categories to fit your needs and a general IBL session if you think your talk isn’t like the others.

The theme is intended to encourage abstracts and proposals that focus on ACTIVE participation of attendees during the parallel sessions. We are interested in sessions about any aspect of IBL, but especially encourage submissions to the following special sessions:

  • My Favorite IBL Activity: Share your favorite IBL activity or group of activities with the participants.
  • IBL Outreach: Share how you use IBL in outreach activities such as Math Teachers’ Circles, Math Student Circles, math clubs, and math camps. 
  • IBL Professional Development: Share how you educate others in the preK-16 educational community about IBL. 
  • Nuts & Bolts: Share your most successful (or not so successful) approaches to engaging students, grading, assessment, and marketing in an IBL classroom. 
  • General IBL: Share other engaging IBL topics that do not fit into any of the above sessions.

Sessions will be a bit longer than in the past to account for the focus on active participation. Specifically, sessions will be 30 minutes in duration (25 minutes for presentation and 5 minutes reserved for questions).

To submit a proposal for a talk or workshop session, send the following information to Angie Hodge (amhodge@unomaha.edu), TJ Hitchman (theron.hitchman@uni.edu), and Norma Flores (nflores@edu-adv-foundation.org) with the subject line “Legacy 2014 Abstract Submission.”

Name:
Affiliation:
Title of talk or presentation:
Abstract (200 words or less):
Email:
Preferred Session:

Description of how the proposed session will be active or engaging for the participants (50 words or less):

Registration is also open and is very affordable! When else can you get registration, most meals, AND hotel for under $200? What a steal!!!

The 17th Annual Legacy of R. L. Moore and Inquiry-Based Learning Conference takes place on June 19-21, 2014 at the Sheraton Downtown in Denver, CO. Come learn and share about IBL!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Math Ed Mania at the JMM

by Dana Ernst and Angie Hodge

2013 JMM Exhibit Hall OpeningIn our previous post, we highlighted numerous talks and events with an inquiry-based learning theme that will be taking place at the upcoming Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore.

However, there are lots of mathematics education-focused sessions that we didn’t mention. Of course, you can browse the JMM Program, but this can be overwhelming since there are so many awesome things going on. In this short post, we thought we would share a few items from the program that caught our eye.

Nearly all of the MAA Contributed Paper Sessions are math education flavored and it seems like there are going to be some fantastic sessions. The one we are the most excited about is “Flipping the Classroom,” which has a whopping four parts.

Flipping the Classroom
  • Part I: Friday January 17, 2014, 8:00 a.m.-10:55 a.m.
  • Part II: Friday January 17, 2014, 1:00 p.m.-5:55 p.m.
  • Part III: Saturday January 18, 2014, 8:00 a.m.-10:55 a.m.
  • Part IV: Saturday January 18, 2014, 1:00 p.m.-2:35 p.m.

Inverted pedagogy (i.e., flipping) has been a hot topic the past few years and we are interested in learning more about its benefits and pitfalls. It’s also a topic we hope to discuss in future Math Ed Matters posts. Robert Talbert has been an evangelist for both inverted pedagogy and peer instruction and has agreed to give four talks at the JMM! Robert is a great speaker and we encourage you to check out at least one of his talks.

No matter what approach one may take to teaching, assessment is something that all teachers are concerned—and likely struggle—with. Thankfully, there are two sessions devoted entirely to this topic.

Assessing Student Learning: Alternative Approaches
  • Part I: Wednesday January 15, 2014, 8:00 a.m.-10:55 a.m.
  • Part II: Wednesday January 15, 2014, 2:15 p.m.-5:50 p.m.
  • Part III: Thursday January 16, 2014, 8:00 a.m.-11:55 a.m.

Assessment of Proof Writing Throughout the Mathematics Major
  • One Session: Thursday January 16, 2014, 8:00 a.m.-9:15 a.m.

Two courses that are “hot topics” in their design and pedagogy at the moment are “Introduction to Proofs” and “Linear Algebra.” If you are teaching one of these courses in the near future, you will want to check out one of these sessions.

Bridging the Gap: Designing an Introduction to Proofs Course
  • One Session: Thursday January 16, 2014, 7:40 a.m.-11:55 a.m.

Innovative and Effective Ways to Teach Linear Algebra
  • Part I: Friday January 17, 2014, 8:00 a.m.-10:55 a.m.
  • Part II: Friday January 17, 2014, 1:00 p.m.-2:55 p.m.

The AMS also has three sessions on mathematics education that grabbed our attention.  Learn about general math education, the Common Core, and even math outreach. With many departments wanting to help the community, the two-part session on outreach sounds very timely!

AMS Session on Mathematics Education
  • One Session: Thursday January 16, 2014, 1:00 p.m.-3:55 p.m.

AMS Special Session on The Changing Education of Preservice Teachers in Light of the Common Core
  • Part I: Wednesday January 15, 2014, 8:00 a.m.-10:50 a.m.
  • Part II: Wednesday January 15, 2014, 2:15 p.m.-6:05 p.m.
  • Part III: Thursday January 16, 2014, 8:00 a.m.-11:50 a.m

AMS Special Session on Outreach for Mathematically Talented Youth
  • Part I: Friday January 17, 2014, 1:00 p.m.-5:50 p.m.
  • Part II: Saturday January 18, 2014, 8:00 a.m.-10:50 a.m.

We hope to see y’all at the JMM!!! If you see us, please stop and chat.

What sessions are you looking forward to attending?