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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Practice Makes Perfect

When I volunteered to lead a study group for my physics class, I wasn't reallly expecting anyone to show up. Not a single person asked me for help last semester, even though it was obvious by my test scores that I was significantly ahead of the curve. So I was planning on essentially having a study hall after class each day where I could get other work done. Surprisingly, I have had several customers and at least one new person each day.

I am becoming more and more certain that I love teaching. It gives me such a high when a student leaves the room feeling more confident about the material than when they arrived. In many ways, they are helping me more than I'm helping them.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Joy of Cooking

While on your bi-weekly excursion to your local grocer, you notice that there is a new species of mushroom in stock. You've never seen it before, and you're not sure how to prepare it or what exactly it will taste like, but something about it's aroma appeals to you. You place it in your cart an continue on your way.

You run to Target for some personal items, and as you scurry around a child screaming in the center of an aisle, your eyes fall on a birthday card with a curious drawing. You open it, read, and chuckle. Though no one close to you has an upcoming birthday, you buy it and save for an appropriate occasion.

Realizing that your couch desperately needs to be either reupholstered or thrown away, you embark on a trip to the fabric discount store. You find the shade of red that you are looking for, but you also find a bolt of green that you can't resist. It's a real bargain, and it finds it's way home with you.

What do all of these stories have in common? Well, for starters, I know people who regularly do these things, and I'll bet you do, too. People who buy a dress without having anywhere to wear it or squirrel away the styrofoam packing from a computer purchase. These aren't packrats that I'm portraying. They don't save everything indiscriminately. Rather, these are people whose life experience allows them to judge the potential usefulness of a brand new item with reasonable accuracy. They are experienced cooks with a new ingredient, accomplished seamsters with a new cloth, and stylish socialites with closets full of perfect ensembles.

These characters are to their area of expertise what mathematicians are to mathematics. Why do these spmetimes bespectacled bookworms play around with formulas and numbers and patterns, seemingly without purpose? Why do they care about things that don't relate to the "real world?" They play for the same reason we all play. Because it's fun. They care because the shelf life of a piece of mathematics is a whole lot longer than a mushroom. It is not uncommon for a discovery to collect dust for centuries before someone makes a connection or draws a comparison, and suddenly that dusty function springs to life, providing just the thing needed to complete the recipe.

I can't cook. I wouldn't know a porcini from a shitake. But I love to eat, and I appreciate the experienced chefs who are willing to try new ingredients and new combinations. Nor will I ever gain fame as a mathematician, but I still love what it is they do. And you should, too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cutting the Cord

Finally, I'm wireless. Let the games begin.

Here We Go Again

Second verse, same as the first. Almost. This semester, I only have one new professor. The other classes are continuations of last Fall. In a way, that's good, since I know exactly what to expect. I would like a bit more variety, though. I think USM might be too small for that kind of diversity. The Physics Dept only has three professors, if that gives you any idea.

Speaking of physics, my professor walked into class yesterday with a cast on his right arm. Evidently, he had attempted to close a window in his office on Monday and fell, breaking the bone fairly dramatically. He is being forced to revamp his teaching style, since he can't really write on the board very well. I am attempting to turn his misfortune into my advantage by offering to be a pseudo-TA. I would help prepare class materials (handouts,slides, etc.) and gain valuable experience in exchange, and maybe even some work study money. It's still up in the air right now, but I'm hopeful.

In other news, as of about 4pm, I should be the proud owner of a new Dell notebook. AmongHopefully, this should make it easier for me to keep up with my blogging. Perhaps I'll even toss in a vlog or two.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Steel-Driving Man

I've been using my holiday break to catch up on my pleasure reading, which to the lay person, would be largely indistinguishable from school assigned reading. I just polished off one about econometrics called Super Crunchers. Econometrics, as near as I can tell, is what actuaries do, only hepped on on some powerful digital 'roids. Evidently, as Moore's Law continues to hold and computing power explodes, decision making that was once left to the "experts" is now being given over to fairly rudimentary mathematical formulas backed up by a whole lot of terabytes.

Chapter after chapter chronicled the successful usage of econometrics to predict things as diverse as good baseball players to Hollywood blockbusters to medical diagnoses. See as it turns out, those experts aren't really all that expert. Time after time, they fail to beat the predicting ability of simple equations, equations which boil down all of life's subtleties to bare bones. As I read, I found myself nodding in agreement. It is well documented how poorly doctors perform on tests of statistical reasoning. Why should patients trust in their abilities to prescribe treatment if they don't really understand the odds. If the use of a simple algorithm can help save lives, then why shouldn't doctors swallow their pride and admit defeat, as it were?

Of course, it wasn't my ox in the grinder. Until the chapter on education. Then suddenly, I was appalled. How can the process of teaching be boiled down to scripted lesson plans? What kind of robotic rote learning could possibly come out of that?

I've since come to my senses. These computer programs are not a threat, but a blessing. They allow us to do the things that we, as fellow humans, are uniquely suited to do. If a doctor is free from having to analyze symptom after symptom, if a diagnosis is less than a Google search away, then that medical professional can focus more on the healing process. They can spend a few extra minutes holding the hand of a scared little girl, or explaining the treatment details to her mother. Besides, the programs are still guided by the garbage in, garbage out principle. They are only as accurate as the information passed into them, and that will still require skilled human doctors. The same is true for teaching.

I have no desire to sit and read from a script all day, and frankly, it's silly for me to do so, even if it proves to be the most effective teaching method. The same computers that analyze the data behind these lesson plans can easily conduct the lessons as well. Sit the kids down in front of some powerful learning software. That's fine by me, because I know it doesn't render me obsolete. It empowers me to do all the "extra" things that I wouldn't ordinarily get to do. I would have the time to really get to know each of my students. I could allow them each to progress at their own pace, and have the ability to work one on one with each of them.

No one alive today would take offense at being beaten by a machine in a test of speed or strength. What John Henry learned the hard way is second nature to us. Yet we cannot seem to accept that certain intellectual feats are now better performed by cousins of those athletic machines. We feel as though our very humanity being stolen, when in fact, the machines are helping to teach us what being human really means.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Don't Cry for Me

My love of math and science is no secret to those who know me. Friends call me up at all hours, asking me to answer questions or settle bets regarding all manner of things. I am the Phone a Friend. At least, that's how it works with those who have come to love me. The reaction from strangers is quite different.

I've noticed lately, and especially at work, that the discovery of my mathematical predilections is normally accompanied by a wince and/or head tilt. As soon as I mention that I am majoring in math and physics, I am treated as though I've announced a death in the family. "Oh, I'm sorry," they say. Or my personal favorite, "So you're one of those." Usually, I laugh it off, and use it as an opportunity for research. I ask why they feel that way. Why is they're fear and loathing of math so complete that someone else's involvement causes them pain? I find the conversations fruitful, if not more than a bit repetitious.

The respondent almost always remembers loving math as a small child. They can usually pinpoint an exact year or teacher which soured them on their studies. Often times, they remember being told by a teacher that math was simply not for them. It is at that point that I am able to commiserate. In my junior year of high school, after having taken all honors math classes, my teacher told me one day that I simply lacked the "flare for math." It galls me that people who would say such things are allowed to teach any subject at all, let alone such a notoriously tricky one.

I know now, and I continuously attempt to impart to my friends, that math class is not terribly different from shop class. Both are all about tools and toolboxes. Math class is no more about mathematics than wood shop is about craftsmanship and design. Just because you can hammer a nail does not make you an architect, nor does hating long division mean you are cosmically predestined to avoid math. This is a fact that is lost on most students, and too many teachers, and it is one that bears constant reminder. Students must be given a glimpse of the horizon so that they have something to journey toward. Otherwise, we are asking them to practice for a championship game that will never come.