Newsletter #30     Math Day and Sundry Updates

Things are revving up again--it's time to catch you up or some of the news will get buried.

The most exciting recent event is likely not to be news for the majority of you, but I'll burble about it a little bit anyway: Math Day was a huge success. For a start, the committee in charge of weather managed to arrange a day which was not merely nice--it was perfect. Blue skies, warm air, and the quad in full bloom. Then Ed Lazowska kicked things off with a very jazzy talk on computers (so why can't we get our students to make us some talking toasters?) with a nice emphasis on the importance of mathematics to computer science. For the rest of the day, anywhere you went on campus you were likely to run into a flock of students trudging along behind a sign-bearing mathematician (faculty, graduate student or undergraduate), heading for a computer lab or a wind tunnel or the planetarium or... The students who were heading for lectures found their own way, which occasioned some furrowed-brow map reading, but they did seem to get there. Lunch time found the students draped about under the trees and their teachers at an invited lunch in the HUB. As I glanced around the room it struck me that most at least of the tables had a nice mix of visitors and home team. The lunch was followed by a forum discussion on use of calculators in teaching--the ups, the downs and the ???'s. I can't report directly on that one, because I took off to man the origami session, but from what I hear the discussion, which was run by Jack Beal from the College of Education, was a lively one and produced some very interesting comments. The origami session itself was great fun, owing largely to the fact that I had not only several graduate students, but a whole mob of undergraduates helping. The undergraduates were a large part of the population of what appears to be an active and thriving Math Club--something I didn't even know we had one of. A pleasant discovery!

Also pleasant was the follow-up of the day--both the PI and the Times ran articles about it, complete with color pictures and admiring prose. Not bad at all!

Onward to another front. It's time for an update on what is officially known as Creating a Community of Mathematics Learners, and (since fifteen syllabus really is a tad excessive) far too frequently referred to as The NSF Thing. The middle school portion of that is now well and truly under way, and we have begun early pre-planning of the high school portion. For the middle schools what we have had so far since the Port Ludlow retreat I described in Newsletter #25 has been a pair of sessions at each of which the participants were introduced to two of the curricula produced under NSF funding in the past few years. The format has been to have them spend a couple of hours exploring an activity from the curriculum dealing with ratio and proportion, and then, with that under their belts, to listen to one of the producers of the curriculum discuss what the aims and goals and tactics of that particular curriculum project were. The aim is not to get them to choose one of these--some districts aren't even up for a textbook adoption for years--but that they should see what it is that all of the curricula have in common, and refine those ideas by thinking some about how they differ. This process ought, by rights, to maximize their understanding of and profit from the one week workshop they will be attending this summer.

Meanwhile, there's the high school component. It doesn't kick in until autumn of '98, but there's a strong feeling that the high school part is going to take a lot of planning, and we felt the need to stay in contact with a number of the high school teachers who had been really helpful in the pre-planning stage, and besides there was still money in the planning grant. So last week-end we had a planning conference at Semiahmoo, up on a spit of land near Blaine. We had around fifty teachers, representing all six of our school districts, and in most cases several schools per district. We also had most of the district mathematics coordinators, several faculty members and a couple of graduate students. It made for really rich discussions. People dug in with a will, and we now have a lot of really excellent people deeply engaged with the issues of how to make the whole process the most effective. I'd say the only danger inherent in the arrangement was the mental image it gave us of what it is like to work with high school teachers. It's not that we had the entire set of strong teachers from our districts (not by a long chalk) but just that the entire set that we had were strong. If we allow our expectations to be too much shaped by them, we could get into distinctly hot water!

I shall finish with a bit of follow-up on an earlier newsletter. Sometime in the course of last winter we had a Brown Bag featuring Siva Athreya's Math 308 students' projects, which were a course component with which Siva had done a really impressive job. A few days ago I bumped into Siva, who reported that this quarter Monty McGovern had used projects. Next quarter's instructor (Jack Lee??) plans to do likewise, and then the three of them will compare notes and refine the process yet further. Me, I call that a neat development!