Newsletter #12     Wenatchee trip, etc.

Mea culpa! I failed, in the words of my esteemed brother-in-law, to eschew obfuscation. So I think I had better start off this newsletter with a clarification of the previous one. The issue in Brian Greer's example of the barge vs. the runner was that whereas it is a reasonable assumption that a barge of the boring modern diesel-powered sort that has established a pace of a mile every four and a half minutes can keep the pace up for three miles, it is not a reasonable assumption that a runner can do so. I'd have done better, though, to use one of the examples from his paper: "If there are 14 pizzas for 4 children at a party, how should they be shared out?" vs. "If there are 14 balloons for 4 children at a party, how should they be shared out?" or "If a shop sells 312 birthday cards during December, how many can it expect to sell from January through March?" vs. "If a shop sells 312 Christmas cards during December, how many can it expect to sell from January through March?" The problems, by the way, were given to matched samples of students, rather than both problems to any one student.

In any case, the point Greer is making is that because too many of the problems a student encounters in math classes can only be solved by making highly unrealistic assumptions, students learn early and firmly not to worry if a solution is nonsense. The situation is not a new one, though. Greer also gave a classy example from back in ' 78. 1478, that is!

Onward. There have been two major events since the last newsletter, and there will be two more in the next week, so I'd better not slack off! Event the first was a Brown Bag at which we had four guests from other departments discussing courses being taught by collaborative learning tactics. Dean McManus from Oceanography, Pinky Nelson from Astronomy, and Dean's student, Liz, discussed a scheme Dean and Pinky are each using in relatively advanced courses. It involves having students group to read and discuss a bunch of carefully selected articles, then re-group in such a way that each new group has exactly one representative from each of the previous groups--i.e., one presenter for each article. Janice's courses were more elementary ones, and the key element was converting as many lookkee-up-here demonstrations as possible into dive-in-and-do-them experiments. All agreed that the process was highly work-intensive, and made for some tricky points in assessment (or possibly simply made the trickiness more apparent), but that they wouldn't consider going back. What sticks most in my mind, though, is the total glow on Dean's face as he described the joy of wandering around a room filled with "groups of students all completely involved in lively discussions of the science I love!"

The second event was of rather a different nature. On Friday morning, under the auspices of the PFF grant, seven graduate students and I piled into the Warfield van and rumbled off down the road towards Wenatchee for a week-end Washington Community College Mathematics Conference. The morning, unfortunately, proved more educational than we had had in mind, with mini-lessons in things like how to cool a radiator with water carried from a mountain stream in an extremely leaky jug, and what it's like to ride in the back seat of a patrol car (crowded). Eventually we left Issaquah in two rented cars and somewhat dampened spirits. Got to Wenatchee in plenty of time for the evening's festive dinner, where many of us found old friends (including a whole bunch of people who have been graduate students here). The next morning's offerings included three batches of four sessions, and among us we got to quite a lot of them. Matt Hudelson can now tell you some numbers not to choose in the state lottery, and a number of us are just waiting for a chance to perform Carl Swenson's mug and key trick (which is far more mathematical than the title would lead you to believe!) Major focus for me was the last session, though. That was when four of us as a panel described and led a discussion of the PFF. It was remarkably well attended and very well received. Furthermore, a couple of people made excellent suggestions of ways in which to make our progress sustainable. All in all, it definitely justified the effort of getting beyond Issaquah!

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