Newsletter 119     Two Brown Bags and a Visit[5/04]

Catch-up time! Two Brown Bags and one really neat visit. I'd better try to be efficient. Actually, I'm in the unusual position of having been one of the conversation-launchers for both of the Brown Bags, which gives me great scope for describing them -- especially given that nobody showed up with a tape recorder.

Brown Bag the first had as its underlying topic the Washington State Community College Mathematics Conference from which several of us had just returned. Two of the three graduate students who went with me (thank you, VIGRE!) were otherwise occupied, but to make up for that we had Debbie NIchols, who is in the department on loan from Skagit Valley Community College, thanks to the ESP (Educators' Sabbatical Program). She had been to this conference and to far more of its predecessors than I, so she provided a very valuable perspective. She had, in fact, many interesting things to say on the issue that had most attracted the attention of Jim Kelly (grad student attendee): use of graphing calculators. As I recall, there is at least one course that she regularly teaches at Skagit Valley and has taught here this year in which at Skagit Valley calculators are required and here forbidden. That may be an oversimplification, but it does represent the general state of affairs -- we are by far the most restrictive department around as far as calculators go. This has resulted in some rumors that no student is ever permitted to use a calculator in any course, which serve to muddy the waters yet further. After many such conversations, I think I could recite in rapid succession ten good reasons why calculators ought to be used and ten good reasons why they shouldn't -- but I won't. You've probably all heard them anyway.

The other major issue at the conference was the one in which I got caught up, and on that one Debbie saved me from going into a decline. This is the issue of Quantitative Literacy. I had had a brush with it thanks to an excellent presentation at WaToToM, but this time, thanks to Jan Ray's eloquence, it really grabbed me. What it boils down to is a matter of being made conscious that I (we) need to take far more seriously a gap of which we are all aware, and at which we tend simply to roll up our eyes: people at large completely fail to understand a number of really basic and terribly important elements of living with quantities. Exponential growth, for instance, and very elementary conditional probability. Worse, people allow wildly unreasonable quantitative statements to go by unquestioned. Ron Ward of WWU came up with a lovely, if hair-raising, example of that when he sat on a jury for a trial. The defense witnesses had glaring inconsistencies in reports on the distance a pick-up had traveled and the time it took to do so (before careening into a black cow on the road!) which called into question all of their evidence -- and the prosecuting attorney apparently didn't notice. We wince and we laugh a hollow laugh -- but where does the buck stop where that ignorance is concerned? Wince harder. On the other hand, even though we are the ones with a relatively firm grasp on suchlike matters, we aren't really in a position to deal with it directly. That needs to be done by collaborative efforts with folks who teach in fields where the math can potentially be made visible and be connected to real life. That's where I began to become distraught, because that kind of collaboration at UW is wonderful, but darned difficult to achieve. From this I was rescued by Debbie, who pointed out that that is something community colleges are really good at, and are doing more and more. That doesn't let us off the hook, but it does appreciably diminish the bleakness of the outlook.

Onward to the other Brown Bag, about which there was nothing bleak at all. That was the one about Math Fairs. I think it is best characterized by the fact that at the end of it many of the chocolate cookies we had brought in celebration of its being the final Brown Bag of the year were left over, but none of the math puzzles we brought were. We didn't let people start playing with them before we plied them with information, though, and while doing so discussed a number of excellent questions and suggestions that arose. That's because we are very much hoping to expand the Math Fairs and their impact over the next couple of years, so I wanted to get people maximally tuned in. Here's the thumbnail: in March we had a Math Fair at Leschi Elementary School in the Central District at which kids, aided by students from Math 171 and by GK-12 fellows (graduate students who regularly spend time at Leschi) ran booths with puzzles or games that their parents and fellow students came and worked on. Some details are in Newsletter #117; main point here is that despite a few glitches it generated enough enthusiasm to be clearly scheduled for repetition next year. One of the teachers even went with Lisa Korf and me to a Math Fair conference in Banff in April. So we'll do that, which with luck will supply us with a template which we will then adjust as necessary to take it to Thurgood Marshall (another GK-12 school). That should then enable us to come up with a template for taking Math Fairs to other schools provided we have teacher and parent support for doing so. And what would make this especially successful and exciting would be to have some mathematicians willing to feed the enthusiasm by spending a couple of hours in a classroom introducing kids to one or another of the problems that make up the Fairs. By way of whetting people's appetites, we brought along several such problems. There's only one I can reproduce successfully here, so here it is:

Take all the aces and face cards from a deck of cards. Now make a four by four array in which every row, every column and each diagonal has exactly one of each suit and exactly one of each value.

There are more problems and puzzles, not to mention a general description of Math Fairs, at . Linked to that is one page with a lovely example I wanted to bring up after hearing it at Banff, on the distinction between a word problem as a camouflage for a computation and one that induces problem-solving. That one is at Time, space and I are all expiring, but I can't meander off without at least mentioning today's event. We had as our departmental guests the entire of Karen Reissig's fourth grade class from Leschi. They worked on some tesselation puzzles in the lounge, then toured the building in small groups escorted by a whole bunch of faculty members and graduate students. Then after a brief and slightly soggy tour of the rest of campus they returned to eat their lunches in the lounge. They were delighted -- and they were a delight!