Newsletter #104     WERA, a Brown Bag and PFF follow up

Catch-up time. February and March were so full of events that I wound up gleeping over one entirely: a two day conference of the Washington Educational Research Association on Closing the Gap: High Achievement for All. For me, the most exciting part was hearing Alan Schoenfeld discuss the project he and others have just launched in Berkeley. He spends several hours a week as a member of a ninth grade classroom at the lower end of the academic scale, known to the kids as "Mr. S", and finding out far more about how kids and classes function than he otherwise possibly could (also having a whale of a good time.) All this will feed into a project which I can't possibly describe -- and if I could, it would already be out of date, because it's been a month since he described it and one of its major characteristics is fluidity. It's all part of the conviction that led him to write the article I described in Newsletter 86 ( -- he is enormously concerned about mathematics education as a civil rights issue. Actually, I guess I gleeped over two events: there was Math Day. That one is now looking so smooth that I almost (but not quite) take it for granted. Oh, yeah, 1200 students from all over the state and their teachers, and a plenary talk and several dozen sessions and events, and helpers of every level from undergraduate to professor emeritus, all coordinated and apparently frictionless. Even sunshine and cherry trees in blossom. Much credit goes to Jim Morrow, who has developed the running of Math Day into a fine art (though I suppose I'd better not credit him with the cherry trees). And now April is upon us, with yet more good goings on -- as I said, time to catch up. For a start, we have had one classy Brown Bag, thanks to Judith Arms. It was partly about Knot Theory and partly about Math 497. To clarify that one: Math 497 is a course we instituted in 1994, thanks to the efforts of Jim King, and have run in every quarter since (until this one.) Its major mandate is to provide interesting, challenging mathematical content at an hour at which K-12 teachers (especially high school teachers, in general) can manage to be on campus. Since it is not a prerequisite to anything, it is a great spot for being creative. Since the students in it are there because they want to be, it has a great clientele. In fact, the constituents are a major attraction, because the class usually attracts a splendid mixture of folks who are teaching, folks who want to teach, and folks who are attracted by the subject matter itself. The students tend to enjoy each other a lot, especially the present and future teachers. All this I have burbled about for years, and this year Judith finally succumbed and tried it out -- and is now as hooked as I am. She decided to take the opportunity to learn Knot Theory by teaching it -- hence the double nature of the Brown Bag. She provided us with string and some challenges for a start, so we got to tie it (and ourselves) in knots. She also displayed the posters her students created as a final project, demonstrating a wide range of knot theory consequences and extensions. The amount of work she put into it became progressively clearer as the hour wore on -- as did the fact that every ounce of that effort really paid off. As I said, a classy Brown Bag. Judith is also involved in another of April's new items. This one is more the announcement of something getting started, but it is off to a zippy enough start to be worth the reporting. As some of you may recall, over the past years we have twice had the good fortune to be funded for PFF Projects (once by the Pew Charitable Foundation and once by NSF). The underlying idea of those was to broaden the horizons of graduate students -- specifically to make them aware of the existence of lively mathematical goings-on off of the U.W. campus. We linked up with Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College and did a bunch of things. The central feature was a set of visits by graduate students to those campuses, which we were able to make part of their TA position for a quarter. That funding is no longer available, so we decided to try turning the visiting into a part of a course. Judith and I have put together a Math 503 centered around that idea. Fourteen students signed up, which pleased us. And one thing that I found really pleasing and exciting was that we were able to offer them the opportunity to visit not only the original two places, but a whole bunch of others. I wrote to faculty members at Seattle Pacific and four different community colleges, and every one of them not only welcomed students themselves, but found colleagues who would also do so. I only wish we could accept all of their offers, because it seems to me a really nice campus-connector. As I say, this is just a beginning report -- there should be more to tell in another couple of months. One final item, also a throwback to PFF days: we have revived the Marlai Thai Dinner series. These are dinners where some faculty members and some graduate students get together over some good food and just talk about math life in general and departmental life in specific. Some nice developments around the department have stemmed from previous such dinners, though there is no requirement that anything other than faculty/student communication come of them. The conversations (or most of them) are summarized at As a post-final item, I shall add, with a pride that only someone as inept as I at web work could possibly understand, that the newsletters are now up to date on my web page ( In fact, I was so set up with myself when I finally accomplished that that I decided to add the latest dinner summary as well. And it's there, all right -- framed by a collection of bizarre junk that I can't for the life of me get rid of. My just deserts for getting smug! --
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