For a start, what is this MER? Well, it all started about a decade ago at an AMS meeting, when two mathematicians fell into a discussion of educational issues at their research universities and each made the exciting discovery that he wasn't the only research mathematician in the world to find such issues fascinating and compelling. They arrived at a suspicion that they might even not be the only two, and set about to find funding for a couple of small gatherings of like spirits. Instead, what they came up with was funding for a multi-year sequence of workshops gathering mathematicians from all over the country, and an organization to run them. Originally the organization's name was Naomi Fisher, but she now has assistants. The workshops, each a gathering of forty mathematicians with some particular issue to focus on, have uniformly been filled to overflowing. People who have been to one form the Mathematicians and Educational Reform Network.
Those workshops are still going on, but now MER has added another dimension. A new series of workshops and a new network now link not just individuals but departments. Teams from thirteen research universities get together for what is now an ongoing conversation about the same issues on a departmental scale. The conference from which Doug Lind, Tom Duchamp, Michael Keynes and I have just returned was the third annual MER Department Network Workshop, and to my mind much the best (so far, at least!) Our objectives, as phrased by Naomi Fisher, were to develop models where research and education are mutually reinforcing and satisfying, and to share our expertise and savvy and push each other to be risk takers. A good set of goals.
Naomi also formulated another goal which I found extremely striking: it is no longer the case that our mandate is to adapt to existing changes. What we have to do is adapt to change--constant, possibly accelerating, change that is not going to stop happening in the foreseeable future. I'm still digesting that one.
On to specifics. Thursday evening's opening address was by Don Lewis, the director of the Division of Mathematical Sciences at the NSF. He took as his title "One large glacier", working with the image of a glacier which starts as a single big thing and splits as it runs into mountain peaks on its way down, but then coalesces back into a single entity. Science started out, millenia ago, as a single field. It has since split or even splintered. Now it needs to reduce its number of pieces not by elimination, but by communication and connection. We are not at risk because we are producing things nobody needs. We are at risk because we aren't finding out who does need them. Lewis, for instance, had attended a "show and tell" at some Navy base (I missed the exact context) where he watched a bunch of computer scientists re-inventing nineteenth century geometry. Apparently a solicitation had been made for a computational geometer and not one mathematician had applied. Moral: if we don't rise to the opportunities presented, someone else will.
This gives rise to an obvious question: does this mean we should all go out and sit at the feet of guys in white lab coats, waiting for them to drop questions for us to nibble on? NO! But it does mean that people who are in a position to do so should be making an active effort to find out what the issues are in other branches of science and in industry and determining to which of them we have a contribution to make. If they do so we will all be enriched. Intellectually, I mean--but with the spectre of Rochester haunting us all, the other aspect does tend to leap to mind. Or, as Lewis put it, "If we want to behave like poets, we had better prepare to live like poets."
On Friday and Saturday the format was a morning of panel presentations to the whole group, with discussions thereafter, and afternoon sessions in which smaller groups discussed particular issues. Friday's first panel was on the process of calculus reform. Michael described ours, and four others described theirs. I was particularly impressed with the amount that Pat Shure has put together in implementing Michigan's system, which went over to small sections and interactive teaching a number of years ago. The introductory materials for instructors sounded wonderful and the "gateway exams" (= proficiency type tests to get students to sharpen the tools they need for attacking conceptual issues) sounded very well thought out, and... By the third time I went up to her I stopped saying "Could you send me a copy of that?" and just said "Could you please send me EVERYTHING?"
Friday's second panel was on curricular renewal, with descriptions of a number of courses and programs. Tom described the current model of our proposed Applied and Computational Mathematical Sciences Program. We also heard, among other things, about a new doctoral program at the University of Arizona which resides at an interesting spot on the bridge between pure mathamatics and pure education, and about a re-vamping of the pre-calculus offerings at Oklahoma State so as provide content better adapted to the specific needs of three different populations.
In the afternoon I opted to attend a session on Facets of Curricular Reform. It was a wonderful conversation, though not in general productive of reportable information. The one specific that sticks in my mind was Harvey Keynes' description of a computer lab project that involved entering data collected from the speedometer and odometer of a moving car. I was relieved to hear that the project directions provide a strict prohibition of data-collecting by the driver. For details, look at
which is where the University of Minnesota has (among other things) all of its computer labs on line.
Saturday's first panel was by our hosts, the University of Maryland. They were discussing current developments in Maryland's articulation between community colleges and the university. The up side was that they have gotten really good communication going. The down side was that the legislature (if I was following correctly) seems alarmingly ready to step in and declare what each should do. The second panel topic was "Multiple aspects of faculty and teaching" (Naomi confessed to a spot of title-producing desperation!) We heard about TA-training at Oklahoma (format not altogether importable, given that their students have a full year of non-teaching support during which they can be introduced very gently to the other end of the red pen) and a number of changes at Rutgers and Arizona. I described our efforts with the PFF grant and the plans generated by them. I held forth some more on them in the afternoon session I attended (Preparing Graduate Students for the Mathematics Profession), ably seconded by Michael. We also discussed the learning options for TAs in 100/102. In fact, I suspect we may have rather pre-empted the discussion, which could account form my having no notes on it!
Sunday morning started with a discussion on "Views on the mathematics department of year 2000", which was absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, Tom and Michael and I had to slip out to catch a plane. It looked as if Doug were taking good notes, though--insights from that should be forthcoming. And meanwhile the rest of us had an entire day full of de-briefing time, and had some really interesting exchanges on differences in our perspectives. I suspect, however, that you have all hit saturation point by this time, so I shall leave all that for another occasion--or possibly as bait to get you to the Brown Bag!