Crisman at the 17th Annual Legacy of R. L. Moore—Inquiry-Based Learning Conference (photo Kirk Tuck/EAF) |
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? |
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.
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