Newsletter 120    Summer summary and an AWM column on TEAM-OP [8/04]

Every now and then in the asynchronous course of writing this newsletter I am faced with the choice between doing a bunch of interesting events the injustice of whooshing too swiftly through them and doing them the still greater injustice of ignoring them altogether. Such a situation now stares me in the face -- so hold onto your hats, it is whoosh time!

For a start, there was an event which I considered so spectacular that I do not hesitate to bring it in, even though a lot of you already know about it: Guy Brousseau, about whom I have written several times because of my pleasure and pride in working with him on Didactique, was given the first ever Felix Klein award -- an international prize for his lifetime contributions to the field of mathematics education. It was presented at ICME (the International Congress of Mathematics Education) in early July in Copenhagen. Very exciting!

For that event I was present in spirit but decidedly absent in body, because I was busy teaching in SIMUW. Since I wrote about it last summer in Newsletter 109, and furthermore a description is linked to the Math Department's home page I will refrain from major description and merely say that once again we had an absolutely delightful collection of exceedingly bright high school kids having the time of their lives with mathematics and each other. Keeping them well challenged was a distinct challenge!

In the midst of that came a neat one-day event. I was invited to a meeting of the Professional Educator Standards Board in Olympia. That is the group that advises the legislature on issues of teaching -- a non-trivial pursuit. What made it significant was that I was there because someone (or more probably sometwo or three) had persuaded the board that one of the voices they needed to listen to was that of WaToToM (Washington Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics). Since one of our major objectives in the last couple of years has been to have such a voice, this constituted a major development on the WaToToM front. With the moral support of two fellow-WaToToMites I laid out our opinions with a certain emphasis and fielded as many questions as I could. Impact unclear, but it seems reasonable to hope that this represents the beginning of a phase in which getting together and articulating our views is no longer simply an exercise in essay-writing. Cheering!

I'll pull a chronology leap here to the most recent event that needs covering, because it, too, dealt with the teaching of mathematics at the K-12 level, or more precisely at the K-16 level. Last week at the Sleeping Lady there was a week-long conference centered around the transition from high school to college. Currently there are detailed standards for grade level expectations up through tenth grade, culminating in the tenth grade WASL. Beyond that is limbo. Efforts have been made to put together standards, but the results haven't proved workable. There is an increasing, and increasingly visible, chasm between what goes on in high school and in colleges and universities, and many students are suffering from it. An instant solution is not an available option, but a lot of good ideas were generated in the course of the week. I got to go in at the end and simply enjoy the fruits of everyone else's labors (including those of Jenni Taggart and Matt Conway from our department), which left me feeling quite upbeat about the whole deal.

Back-pedaling, time-wise, gets us back to two summer workshops. One was an iteration in a context that probably looks pretty familiar: fellows in the GK-12 project and teachers from the schools to which they will be going took part in a week-long workshop held at the University Child Development School. We've been honing our skills at making that a good lead-in to the year of working together without getting in the way of its function as straight professional development for the teachers. I'd say this time represented a definite step forward, which felt good.

The other workshop, or Institute as we generally called it, was for TEAM-OP (Teaching for the Environment: Active Mathematics on the Olympic Peninsula). That one I described in fair detail before the fact in an AWM column that never made its way into these chronicles, so I shall refrain from further description and merely say that it was highly successful and just as enjoyable as I was expecting at the time I wrote the following column:

*** The process of putting together this column has once again caused me to see that two elements of my multi-module life have a heavy overlap and a lot to contribute to each other. I'll describe the two separately, which may look disjointed - hang in for the bridge at the end!

The first element is quantitative literacy. This is an issue about which most of us have muttered for most of our mathematical lives, but now it is being addressed directly, nationally and very specifically. I became conscious of the movement first through a report at one conference, and then through a call to arms at another. The examples used were largely the ones that are familiar to us all, and amusing in a slightly painful way: newspaper articles reporting that 300% of the people present responded in some way; advertisements pointing out that 3/4 of the people suffering from disease X have symptom Y, so if you have symptom Y, you had better buy medication Z (to the tune of $N); total lack of concern over situations exhibiting unambiguous and disastrous exponential growth, etc. What's new is the response. Always before it has seemed to me to be split between a collective guilt trip and a discussion about which (other) level of teaching should be responsible for dealing with the situation. Myself, I have been working diligently on including some elements of quantitative literacy in various of my courses, but the courses in which I have been able to focus such efforts consist in general of "liberal arts" courses and developmental courses, which together reach some 150 of the University of Washington's 30,000 undergraduates - a discouragingly small proportion.

Then came Jan Ray's call to arms. First she presented a stellar array of examples of lack of quantitative literacy. Then, just as I was expecting a "go make sure you teach this stuff" message, she came up with an unexpected and absolutely valid observation: our courses are not, in fact, the best places to address the issue. Getting students to use in the outside world (a.k.a. "real life"!) what they learn in mathematics class has been a struggle for generations. On the other hand, a professor of, say, sociology would have far greater credibility from a student's eye view in pointing out a mangled percentage or a distorted statistic. Furthermore the context could make it much more memorable than it would be if viewed as an abstract mathematical glitch.

With that in mind, the strategy shifts radically. The central focus becomes work with colleagues in other departments. Jan has an entire set of tactics for making the mathematical aspects of non-mathematical fields intriguing rather than threatening to colleagues in those fields, and she cited several instances where such tactics have resulted in co-taught courses. It's a lovely idea- but for sheer reasons of scale a good deal more feasible in a community college or a four-year college than in a massive state university. I finished the conference a little envious, but feeling no closer than before to being able to make a serious contribution.

Meanwhile, in another part of my life, I was being invited to take part in a teaching project. On the Olympic Peninsula, right across Puget Sound from Seattle, there are a number of school districts where factors like the collapse of the logging industry have produced an economic downturn which in turn has jeopardized the educational system. Since teaching math in context is currently much encouraged, a member of the College of Forestry set up an outreach project intended to use the natural local interest in trees and logging to motivate the learning of some mathematics. At the two year renewal point he realized that although some of his goals had been met, teaching mathematics is harder than he had realized, and a lot that he had hoped for hadn't transpired. As a result, when the renewal application began to get rolling, I got a phone call. It was a very persuasive call. The project sounded intriguing, and the need was high, and the combination succeeded in demolishing my resolve to add nothing to my schedule.

I have had no cause to regret that decision. In fact, the process of planning has been such fun that it was my original intention to write this column simply on the joys of interdepartmental collaboration. My appetite has been thoroughly whetted for next month's workshop, where I will learn about tree growth and soil absorption and fire hazards, not to mention doing an orienteering exercise and taking a field trip to the Rain Forest. Our planning sessions, which included a mathematics education specialist from the College of Education in addition to my forestry colleague and myself, had an ongoing theme of "Hey, when you teach the teachers that, count me in!"

It was only as I began marshalling the reasons for recommending that any mathematician snap up any opportunity for such a collaboration that I bumped into echoes of Jan Ray's call to arms. "Just get a good conversation going with a colleague in another field," she said, "and then watch for opportunities to bring in the topics where math gets mangled in his field." I've gotten into the midst of a splendid conversation. I'm not sure how many of those topics I'll find, but I'm now totally geared up to watch for them, and I look forward with great pleasure to whatever discussion ensues.

I know that this, too, constitutes just one more drop in the Quantitative Literacy bucket - but it's a drop that arrives with a particularly cheery "plink"!