Integrating Computer Science in Math: The Potential Is Great, But So Are The Risks

By Emmanuel Schanzer, Bootstrap

Recent calls to bring Computer Science to K-12 schools have reached a fever pitch. Groups like and Girls Who Code have become household names, having raised tens of millions in funding from Silicon Valley luminaries and small donors alike. In February of 2016, President Obama announced the “CSforAll” initiative, and asked for $4 billion of funding from Congress to pay for it. Even in today’s divided climate, this initiative found bipartisan support, and mayors and governors from coast to coast have made sweeping commitments to bring CS Education to all students.

This effort has serious consequences for math education. Adding a new subject is easier said than done: recruiting, training, hiring and retaining tens of thousands of new CS Teachers will take decades and cost billions, and the finite number of hours in the school day and rooms in the school building make it difficult to find space for these courses. To meet these commitments, many schools and districts have employed three strategies: (1) take time out of existing math classes for CS, (2) take math classes out of a teacher’s schedule, and instead have them teach a CS class, and/or (3) have CS classes count as a math credit [1]. All of this is done because there’s a widespread misconception that “computer science is just like math”, and that skills from one will transfer to the other. Unfortunately, most of the programming languages being taught in these classes have little to do with mathematics, and embrace concepts that are explicitly math-hostile. In this article, I will discuss some of the challenges and opportunities faced by K-12 mathematics educators in our efforts to develop an authentic incorporation of CS into the K-12 curriculum. Continue reading

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If You Don’t Talk To Your Students About Math, Who Will?

By Steven Klee, Contributing Editor, Seattle University

During my freshman year of high school, my geometry teacher came into class one day and challenged us to trisect an angle with a compass and a straight edge. Anyone who was successful would receive an A in the class for the rest of the year. We wouldn’t have to do any more homework or take any more tests. Nothing. Of course, this should have seemed too good to be true. But I was in ninth grade and didn’t know any better, so I set off to solve this seemingly innocent problem.

I came up with a dozen or so false proofs, all of which included reasoning like “well, now you just move the compass a bit over here and then you draw this line, and it works!”   Of course it didn’t work, but this is the kind of non-proof you would attempt to make if you had only just learned what a proof is.

But rather than simply tell me I was wrong and insist that I was doomed to failure, my teacher let me share the ideas behind every failed proof so that I could see the shortcomings in my arguments.   He sat with me and we talked more broadly about what does and does not constitute a proof. He knew I was going to be wrong. He knew this was an impossible assignment. But he still listened.

My teacher’s openness to hearing my ideas inspired me to keep working and to keep trying new approaches. As I learned more math, I kept coming back to this problem. I tried using trigonometry. I tried using calculus. I tried making up a unit distance that I would call “1.” After watching Good Will Hunting, I decided that it would probably help if I drew all of my diagrams on mirrors. None of these things helped. Along the way, I learned about quantifiers. I learned about proofs. I learned to identify the errors in my attempted proofs on my own. Ultimately, I think I shed a tear of joy when I finally saw the proof of impossibility in my graduate algebra class.

This story can lead to a lot of different discussions. Ben Braun wrote a beautiful article for this blog about the value of having students work on difficult and unsolved problems, which I highly recommend. Instead, I’d like to explore the value of talking about mathematical ideas informally, especially when they are ill-formed and possibly incorrect; the value of encouraging our students to share such ideas with one another; and the value of participating in these discussions with our students. Continue reading

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Inverse Functions: We’re Teaching It All Wrong!

By Frank Wilson, Chandler-Gilbert Community College; Scott Adamson, Chandler-Gilbert Community College; Trey Cox, Chandler-Gilbert Community College; and Alan O’Bryan, Arizona State University

What would you do if you discovered a popular approach to teaching inverse functions negatively affected student understanding of the underlying ideas? Would you continue to teach the problematic procedure or would you search for a better way to help students make sense of the mathematics?

A popular approach to finding the inverse of a function is to switch the \(x\) and \( y\) variables and solve for the \(y\) variable. The strategy of swapping variables is not grounded in mathematical operations and, we will argue, is nonsensical. Nevertheless, the procedure is so ingrained in textbooks and other curricula that many teachers accept it as mathematical truth without questioning is conceptual validity. As a result, students try to memorize the strategy but struggle to “accurately carry out mathematical procedures, understand why those procedures work, and know how they might be used and their results interpreted” (NCTM, 2009; Carlson & Oehrtman, 2005). As we will illustrate, this common process for finding the inverse of a function makes it harder for students to understand fundamental inverse function concepts.

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The National Science Foundation Has Resources to Help You Improve the Teaching and Learning of Undergraduate Mathematics

By Ron Buckmire, TJ Murphy, John Haddock, Sandra Richardson, and Brent Driscoll

This article is intended to serve as a rough “proof” of the statement, “There exist many resources and opportunities supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve the teaching and learning of undergraduate mathematics.” We present a curated, annotated list of projects funded by the NSF’s Divis­ion of Undergraduate Education (DUE) that readers of this blog might be interested in. Additionally, we demonstrate the remarkable diversity of projects and institutions that are funded by DUE to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics, and share professional opportunities for people who share these goals.

The NSF is an independent federal agency tasked by the United States Congress to “promote the progress of science.” With a budget of 7.5 billion dollars in fiscal year 2016, NSF received approximately 50,000 proposals and made almost 12,000 awards. NSF is organized into seven Directorates that support research in various disciplines in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as well as in education. Each of the Directorates is further organized into Divisions. For example, the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) is situated in the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS). The Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR) houses DUE, which manages the awards that are the primary focus of this article.

DUE’s current signature program is Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE). IUSE is the latest incarnation of DUE’s programmatic efforts to actualize its mission “to promote excellence in undergraduate STEM education for all students.” Former DUE programs include “Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM” (TUES) and “Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement” (CCLI). The current IUSE solicitation is 15-585, and the next deadline for full proposals is January 11, 2017.

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On What Authority? – Considering Implicit Messages in Our Teaching

By Brian Katz, Augustana College

I think that mathematics draws in some people and repels others in large part because of the distinctive role of authority in our discipline and teaching, especially when we act as content experts and discussion leaders in the classroom. For instance, consider the following phrases from students, distilled from my interactions with college students over the past 15 years.

I’m not a math person. I learn best when you show me a bunch of examples and then I practice them. It’s true, so why do I have to prove it? That’s just how my last teacher told me to do it. I always liked math because there was one right answer. I just want to teach high school; why do I have to learn this? Wait, what – you want me to ask my own question!? Do I have to simplify my fractions? Well, that’s what the computer said was the answer. The test was unfair because it had problems we didn’t discuss in class. ~silence~

I expect that these comments are also familiar and painful to the reader. I think that each of these comments is in part a symptom of ways students have internalized a relationship with authority from our teaching. In this post, I will illuminate the role of authority in mathematics teaching, argue that taking a more overt stance toward it can better support both the students we repel and the ones we attract, and offer a handful of strategies for taking such a stance.

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Creating Momentum Through Communicating Mathematics

By Matthias Beck, San Francisco State University, and Brandy Wiegers, Central Washington University

Given five minutes, can you turn to the person next to you and describe your research? How about over 15 minutes in front of a class of 10th graders? Thinking of one of your research graduate students, how would you prepare her/him to make such an activity equally beneficial for her/him and the 10th graders? For many of us, these are skills only nurtured through conference talks and time within the profession. The SF-State (CM)²: San Francisco State University Creating Momentum through Communicating Mathematics program worked to change this, creating a program that developed mathematics graduate students who could have this conversation and were better engaged in why they were studying mathematics and what role they wanted to have in the future of our profession. As an NSF GK-12 program, (CM)2 ran from 2009-2014, working with master’s level students in mathematics to engage them in mathematical discourse while also supporting their research and professional development. Over the course of the five-year program, a total of 43 SF State mathematics graduate students were involved in the project, spending considerable time and energy on K-12 activities in 13 schools in the greater San Francisco area. A key goal was to strengthen the graduate students’ communication, teaching, outreach, and teamwork skills by immersing them in mathematics classrooms and the San Francisco Math Circle. A second key goal was to make mathematics, especially algebra, and its career connections more relevant and explicit for 6-12th grade teachers and students. This post will share successes, lessons learned, and resources for you as a faculty member to build aspects of outreach, teaching, and professional development programs for your own students. Continue reading

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Conventional Courses are Not Enough for Future High School Teachers

By Yvonne Lai, University of Nebraska – Lincoln and Heather Howell, Educational Testing Service

Consider how you would respond to two different versions of a question. In the first, you are asked to solve a high school mathematics problem. In the second, some high school students’ solutions to that problem are shown to you. You are asked to assume the role of the students’ teacher and to evaluate the mathematical validity of the students’ different approaches. What knowledge, if any, do you need in the second situation that you don’t need in the first situation?

Some would argue that the second situation is just about knowing math. If you, yourself, can solve the high school mathematics problem correctly, and you are very capable in high school mathematics, then this should be enough to evaluate a high school students’ solution. Yet others might say that this question is about teaching. If you can’t interpret students’ work, you can’t judge it accurately. Still others might say that this question targets something in between straight math and teaching. We would say that this scenario assesses a blend of all of these things that previous scholars have named mathematical knowledge for teaching (MKT). We ask the reader to join us in considering, as some have argued, why MKT is a form of applied mathematics – and why mathematicians have a stake in thinking about MKT in this way.

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More Linear Algebra, Please

By Drew Armstrong, Associate Professor of Mathematics, University of Miami

Anyone who teaches mathematics in the US knows that the quality of education could be better, but we also know that the problems are complicated and defy easy solutions. I grew up in Ontario, Canada, where I attended high school and completed an undergraduate degree in mathematics. Afterwards I completed a Ph.D. in the United States and I have now been teaching undergraduate mathematics here for over ten years. These experiences suggest to me a change that would improve college mathematics education in the US. It won’t solve every problem, but it is something concrete that we can do right now.

Suggestion: Replace the typical one-semester “introduction to linear algebra” course with a two-semester linear algebra sequence. This would be taken in the first year of college, in parallel with calculus. It would not have calculus as a pre-requisite.

In effect, this would place linear algebra and calculus side-by-side as the twin pillars of undergraduate mathematics. I believe this would have several immediate benefits for the curriculum. In this blog post I’ll describe three of these benefits and then I’ll explain how my experience as a student in Canada and as a professor in the US has brought me to this position. Continue reading

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The Inefficiency of Teaching

By Gavin LaRose, University of Michigan

It could be the punchline of a joke that at any given college or university, at some point, the administration will lean on departments to be more “efficient” by teaching classes in larger sections, or online, or with some technology or another. By the metric of student credit hour to faculty work hour, of course, large lectures are tremendously efficient, and scale admirably. One may argue that there is little difference between an instructor lecturing to 100 or to 200 students, and little difference between an instructor rendered small by the distance to the front of a large lecture hall and one rendered small in the pixels of a video screen. This is the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) model, which extends this efficiency of scale from 200 to 20,000. Anecdotally, the MOOC tide seems to be receding, but the pressures that argue for this efficiency are not going away. Many departments are being asked to teach, with fewer resources and greater accountability, more students whose mathematical preparation is weaker than in the past [2].

The difficulty here is that the student credit hour metric is easy to measure, while student learning is not. Research says that our efficient passive lecture does not result in the student learning gains we can see with more active teaching techniques [6,7,8]. Indeed, through the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, the presidents of fifteen professional societies in the mathematical sciences have recognized this conclusion and endorsed the use of active teaching methods [4]. But neither the research nor the endorsement provide us with a simple, usable measure by which to demonstrate the effectiveness of these techniques. So our endeavor of teaching remains by easily applied metrics an inefficient one, and I increasingly think one that is inevitably inefficient by even more measures.

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Announcement Regarding White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Call to Action on Active Learning in STEM Education

By Benjamin Braun, Editor-in-Chief, University of Kentucky

This is an announcement to the mathematical community that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has issued a Call to Action for incorporating Active Learning in K-12 and higher education STEM courses. Their call includes a submission form where they ask: “What new (i.e., not yet public) activities or actions is your organization undertaking to respond to the Call to Action to improve STEM teaching and learning through the use of active learning strategies?” The deadline for submission of responses is Sept 23, 2016.  It would be excellent for the mathematics community to be well-represented among the submissions, so I encourage our readers to submit their activities and to share this information with others.

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