Newsletter #11     Penrose, Thomas, Greer and more

In winter quarter there were not many newsletters because there wasn't all that much going on that was pertinent. In spring quarter there haven't been many newsletters because there has been too much going on that was pertinent. I suspect there's a message there, but I'm not sure if I want to know what it is. In any case, this had better be a high-spots-only type letter or you will all bog most thoroughly down.

Actually, the highest spot was so astronomical that I would feel presumptuous saying much more than "Wow!" --two awesome weeks of having Sir Roger Penrose among us. What I can speak to, however, is the fact that he had the excellent sense to bring along his wife, Vanessa Thomas. Vanessa is a member of a consultant firm that deals in Mathematica and teaching. Mostly she has specialized so far in the teaching of Mathematica, with ideas that she shared with us at a Brown Bag on how to tailor a tutorial according to the need of the user. On the other hand, the reason she has not involved herself heavily in teaching with Mathematica was that she was so much appalled by most of the classroom uses of it she had seen so far. She was therefore tremendously pleased to see and hear about a number of the goings on here. We visited Jan Ray's class at SCCC, and watched her class stay completely focused on the mathematical content while using a stellar array of available technology simply as the tool it is intended to be. That and a bunch of conversations here on campus got her really fired up to explore ways to design educational uses for Mathematica. As a capstone, she and Carl Swenson of SU had a conversation which ricocheted around a bunch of software packages which exist, or should exist, or could exist (or occasionally exist and shouldn't!) I think we're going to be hearing more from her. I certainly hope so!

Tucked into a brief gap in the midst of the Penrose/Thomas visit we had another visit from the British Isles. Brian Greer of the University of Belfast gave two seminars co-sponsored by Math and the College of Education. The most striking feature of the first one was a study he had conducted. He asked a bunch of children of varied ages the two questions "If a barge takes four and a half minutes to go a mile, how long will it take to go three miles" and "If a runner can run a mile in four and a half minutes, how long will it take him/her to run three miles?" and was distressed (if not much surprised) by how few students made any distinction--a testimony to the fact that math problems are to be solved in the school mode, meaning that the solutions don't have to make much sense. He concluded his talk with a wonderful passage by a young Lewis Caroll on the subject of the problem "If 6 cats kill 6 rats in 6 minutes, how many will be needed to kill 100 rats in 50 minutes?" That one I instantly nabbed!

The second seminar was a Saturday morning problem fest, complete with festive lunch supplied by the PFF. One exciting feature of that occasion was that we had representation from three campuses (UW, SU and Shoreline Community College) and off campus; from faculty and graduate students; and from at least three countries. It made for great variety in each of the teams of three into which we banded to tackle the absolutely nifty set of wildly assorted problems Brian had brought us (and, yes, I am about to put copies of the problems in the Lounge for one and all!) I was, in fact, so much wound up in the problems that I have almost nothing to report on what Brian himself said, except for one splendid admonition: If you want to teach problem-solving you must constantly beware of committing heuristicide!

That's enough describing, but I should at least mention the Brown Bag at which Peter Shaffer, a post-doc working with Lillian McDermott on the Physics Education Program, gave us an overview of how that excellent and enormous program works, in terms of undergraduates, faculty members, and a large number of graduate students who are learning a lot about teaching. That's another thing we need to stay in contact with.

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