Newsletter #20     Skamania Conference; Brown Bag with Engineers; Colloquium on Calculus; Clarke; Balacheff !!

Some false impressions manage to be even falser than others. It seems to me that a natural conclusion from the fact that no newsletters have been forthcoming over the past month is that nothing interesting has been going on. Natural, but 180 degrees off--there has been so much going on that I couldn't get to the keyboard. This will therefore be somewhat lacunary--but if I start now, maybe I can manage not to have the lacunae outweigh the actual news.

I shall work backwards through time so as at least not to waste the freshness of the latest--and it's very fresh. Yesterday, five graduate students, Dave Collingwood and I got back from a two and a half day PFF sponsored trip to Northwest '96--a conference of community college math faculty from all over Washington and Oregon. Lots of discussion groups and workshops and presentations and conversations, not to mention good food (if someone invites you to a conference at the Skamania Lodge, go!) and good fellowship. I was struck by the degree to which the phrase "Of course, I never lecture" has become de rigeur (struck, to be honest, when I heard myself saying it.) Definite echoes of David Clarke's colloquium on teacher telling. My personal trophy bag contents range from an order form for a videotape on exponential growth that seems to me to be worth class time in Math 107 (an incredibly extreme statement from me) to the title of the last lecture: The dilemma of the mathematics teacher: I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you think you heard is not exactly what I meant. Mike Sequeira of Central Oregon Community College gets the credits on that one!

Moving back by just epsilon from the beginning of the trip we get to Thursday's Brown Bag. We had the good fortune to have as guests three engineers: Marc Eberhard from Civil Engineering, and Rich Christie and John Scott (if I heard Rich's introduction aright) from Electrical Engineering. They gave us an overview of the kinds of mathematics most often arising in each of their fields--Civil relies on heavy duty differential equations (I can still hear Doug Lind saying "Is that a FOURTH deriviative you've got up there?"); Electrical on dealings with complex numbers. Incredible oversimplification, that, but I don't want to produce a laundry list--especially since they most kindly did not. The conversation was so lively that I never did manage officially to terminate the seminar--people with obligations just quietly melted away until we were down to three of them and three of us. Definitely a Good Thing--I think we should be on the lookout for another good excuse to invite them over.

The previous event was a whole week earlier (which could explain why I nearly caught up in my classes.) We had a special colloquium by Sandy Cooper and Tom LoFaro of WSU, who have been doing neat things in their calculus course. In particular, they have been teaching a large (upwards of a hundred, as I recall) class using group work, projects, journals and other denizens of of-course-I-would-do-that-but-my-class-is-too-big land. They never said it was easy (though they did say it was a lot less worse the second time) but they clearly found it exciting and satisfying and interesting. And they had a lot to say, which was fortunate, because after the talk we invited them over to Padelford for another PFF-sponsored event--a casual discussion over pizza among a bunch of people from UW and SU (Seattle Central was also invited, but was on a departmental retreat in Port Townsend--some people have REALLY good ideas!) I nabbed one of their hand-outs, with a batch of information about course goals and tactics, which I can copy for anyone that is interested.

There should have been a brief salute between the last two to Cora Sadowsky, past president of Women in Mathematics, who came up to give a colloquium, and provided the occasion for a gathering of local women in mathematics kindly hosted by Jerry Folland. And there should be a brief salute in here to David Pengelley's colloquium on Sophie Germaine, and to his detective work on how much more she had actually figured out than anything in print would lead one to believe.

With that, I will somersault backwards another notch and land us at the David Clarke visit. This was a high-concentrate pair of days in mid-April. First there was a Pew Festive Forum at Seattle U--very festive indeed, and very lively, predictably enough with David around. His topic was open-ended questions, and his talk was a follow-up to a paper he delivered a few years ago giving eight good reasons to use open-ended tasks in assessing student learning--and ten good reasons not to. I have a copy of some student responses to one of his favorites: which is a better fit, a square peg in a round hole or a round peg in a square hole? I also have a copy of a couple of hand-outs from his colloquium the next day, in which he discussed some research he and a colleague have been doing on the impact on classroom teaching of a radical change in how the state of Victoria assesses its students (impact enormous--vastly greater than that obtained by any edict about how teaching ought to be done.) I also have (hold your hat!) a videotape extolling the virtues of Melbourne University. That's because David has succeeded in arranging an exchange agreement between it and UW. We're not quite sure what to do about it, but we had a nice lunch with several mathematicians and several College of Education people (including Dean Allen Glenn), and are busy concocting schemes for cashing in on the possibilities.

David arrived two hours after the departure of one Nicolas Balacheff, which brings us to the final stop on this backwards journey. Nicolas gave the colloquium the week before David, with the title "Teaching and learning mathematical proof, an epistemological perspective" He discussed many aspects of proof--what it means (which varies considerably from field to field) and how it can and can't be communicated and what is involved in conveying to students what it is that we mean and want. It was very interesting, but a bit overwhelming, and several of us watched in some perturbation as he pared it from a French length talk (two hours) to American length by gleeping over examples. Clearly the same thought struck him, because as we drove away he said "There should have been more examples"--and he has since sent me a couple of papers with the examples ungleeped-over. Yet another thing I can offer to any of you who would like it. I could offer this as an excuse for the chronic state of my desk, but then again, some people manage to file things...

And with that view into the distressingly misty depths of the distant past (all of four weeks ago), my chronicles cease. I do have one remaining chunk of rather stellar news, though, saved up as reward for anyone who waded all the way through the rest: it appears at the moment, barring some horrendous consequence of the way the NSF is reeling under the impact of this complex year, that the grant that Ramesh Gangolli, Jack Beal, Gini Stimpson, Rosemary Sheffield and I have been working on for upwards of two years will in fact be funded. Its format has changed somewhat since the last time I wrote about it, but it looks very exciting as it stands. All being well (do, please, cross all of your fingers) we should be working with almost every middle and high school math teacher in five school districts (including Seattle) over the next five years.

I'm off to buy some champagne!

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