MAA Section Meetings

Hood College has been heavily involved in the MAA for years and years, and our whole department always attends – and sometimes runs chunks of – the section meetings. Thanks to Project NExT I’d at least heard a bit about what the MAA does, but I didn’t really know much about how the meetings went. So in case you – like me – thought of these meetings as primarily for undergraduate students, I wanted to take you on a little tour through the latest meeting I went to of the DC/MD/VA section at Frostburg State University. And I’ll hope the AMS allows a little cross-promotion.

In our section, the meetings begin on Friday afternoon with a minicourse for faculty. This spring’s workshop – entitled “How to use as much inquiry as you’re comfortable with in your calculus class” – was run by Cassie Williams of James Madison University, Amy Ksir of the US Naval Academy, and Mitch Keller at Washington and Lee. I had to miss this one due to a late class, but I’ve enjoyed past workshops on everything from how to use Magma to how to teach Euclid’s Elements in a liberal arts math course.

Laura Taalman on the ubiquity of productive failure in mathematics

After the workshop is a reception and dinner, with the after-dinner talk given by Laura Taalman from James Madison. I’d seen Laura speak on the difficulties of 3D printing at the last JMM, but this talk put a different spin on it. Her talk “FAIL: A Mathematician’s Apology” discussed the long strings of failure that every mathematician has to learn to deal with in order to ever get anywhere. Not only did Laura share some of the more impressive failures she’d encountered, she gathered letters and videos of some other famous mathematicians to share the biggest time they did something dumb. I’m sure it was comforting and supportive for the students, but I know I wasn’t the only faculty member who appreciated the sentiment as well.

Saturday is the typical conference mix of short talks by students and faculty, a student poster session, and longer plenary talks, with a lot of games and activities for the undergrads. Paul Humke of St. Olaf gave a talk called “A Voyager from the Fourth Dimension,” followed by Alissa Crans at Loyola Marymount who spoke on how to divide cake so that everyone got the same amount of cake and frosting. If only all speakers had visual aids that the audience got to eat at the end! And one of our students even took second place in the poster session.

This was my last year as a Section NExT fellow, which is a kind of mini-NExT that’s run through the sections. We meet for a workshop in the fall on topics suggested by the fellows, we sit together at meals so we can meet new people in the section, and in the spring we help with the undergraduate activities. I’ve enjoyed judging the talks and the posters, as it gives me a better sense of how to prepare my own students when they go to conferences. If you’re interested in Project NExT but aren’t able to participate for whatever reason, I strongly recommend checking out what your section has to offer.

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Talking Math Life with Ken Monks

This is the second in a series of interviews with early-career mathematicians, with the goal of providing snapshots of a range of jobs and early-career experiences.

Ken Monks, killing it on guitar when he’s not busy killing it as a math professor at Front Range Community College.  Of his job he says, “I see myself at Front Range Community College forever!  Hopefully in my old age working here, they can give me some Front Range Community Collagen.”

I met Ken Monks (who goes by Kenneth M. Monks professionally) in graduate school at Colorado State University. He was a year behind me in coursework, but was way ahead of me in general mathematical knowledge and pun-making ability. People went to Ken for help with homework, teaching questions, and general mathematical stuck-ness, and to soak up his distinctive kind-and-caustic, pun-filled banter. He is also a great cook and excellent guitar player (check out his band Mama Lenny and the Remedy), but I always assumed that research mathematics would be at the center of his work life because he is just really good at it.  However, Ken surprised me and many other people by choosing to stay on the front range of Colorado after his PhD, accepting a position at the Boulder County Campus of Front Range Community College (FRCC).

Ken comes from a mathematical family—his father Dr. Kenneth G. Monks is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Scranton, his mother Gina Monks has a degree in math and teaches at Penn State Hazleton, his sister Dr. Maria Monks Gillespie has earned a huge number of mathematical honors and recently finished her PhD at Berkeley, and his brother Keenan Monks studied math and computer science at Harvard and is now a software engineer at Facebook.  Together they founded Prove It!, a summer math camp for talented high school students, which takes up a lot of Ken’s spring and summer energy.  He is also working on an open-source calculus textbook built around active learning techniques. It wasn’t easy to find a good time for an interview with Ken last few weeks, between the book, getting ready for the camp, and his double commencement duties: he played guitar with a jazz quartet for the ceremony, and was also the keynote speaker after being named Master Teacher for the year (here’s a video of the commencement, if you want to check out Ken’s speech at 48:11 about how Good Will Hunting is a mirror of FRCC life). I caught up with Ken recently by email to ask him some questions about his math life.  Let me just get out of the way and let Ken take over from here…


Me: Thanks for agreeing to do this!  First, I want to write a paragraph about you and your path in math.  Maybe a few stats would be helpful.

Ken: I never took stats.

Me: I should have seen that one coming. Where did you go to undergrad, what year did you graduate from CSU, and how would you describe your research there?

Ken: In middle school/high school my math was homeschooled by my dad.  Undergrad was at University of Scranton where my dad taught. My mom and I went through the math BS pretty much together there (took Discrete, Algebra, Complex Analysis, etc. together).  Scranton is a small Jesuit four-year liberal arts school.  Graduated in 2006, moved to CSU and got my Masters in 2008 then PhD in 2012.  My research was in combinatorics/group theory since my advisor was Alexander Hulpke. Tim Penttila also put in an unbelievably generous amount of time mentoring me.

My research in my Masters was just to compute the Möbius number of the subgroup lattice of S12 (symmetric group on 12 points).  Möbius numbers in essence are just the “plus and minus ones” that you use on subsets of a set when you do Principle of Inclusion/Exclusion, except generalized to substructures of any structure.  There was lots of Richard Stanley-esque combinatorial trickery and lots of group theory that played together in really nice ways.  My PhD was a continuation of this thread, further studying Möbius numbers of symmetric groups.

Me: Tell me about your job.

I teach a few classes per semester, usually one or two sections of Calculus 2, a section of either Calculus 3 of DiffEq/Linear, and some mix of a section or two of Math for Liberal Arts or College Algebra.  I do a lot of college service in the form of committees within our campus, college, and the Colorado Community College System.  I also run a student Putnam Club where students can train to take the Putnam.  I have a lot of freedom to run Independent Studies whenever a student is interested.

Me: Can you tell us a bit about the choice you made to teach at a community college instead of looking for a research career?

Ken: Ha!  Ok that’s an interesting question. Yeah, because I did have an option.  I got a job offer at University of Wyoming and I turned it down to take the Front Range Boulder gig.  Location was one factor… I was living in Fort Collins, didn’t want to leave, and Longmont is way easier of a drive than Laramie, especially in the winter.  But that wasn’t the only reason.  I LOVED the fact that at the community college there was really no attitude there whatsoever regarding academic chest-pounding or totem-pole climbing or status or prestige or anything like that.  The only thing anybody cared about is student success.   If someone with minimal resources or external support walks in the door and says “I’d like to improve my position in life,” we are all obsessed with how do we collectively help them do that.  There is a ton of interaction at every level, constant conversations, initiatives, and innovation involving faculty, adjuncts, advisors, deans, VPs, and our president Andy Dorsey himself.  This collaborative caring and nurturing aspect of it was extremely appealing to me.  You get to see it first-hand.  We take tons of fast-food employees and help them become nurses, machinists, etc., and enormously improve their lives for themselves and often for their families.  We also take students who are not quite ready to jump into an academic program at a place like CU Boulder and give them an inexpensive first two years with a big sense of community.  They choose us sometimes for financial reasons, sometimes for social reasons, sometimes for reasons involving childcare or location.  A lot of times that option to do the first two years with us makes the difference between someone pursuing a four-year degree or not.  So, we have a mix of quick two-year degrees to get people in the workforce in skilled jobs, and then students looking to transfer to a four-year school.

I love this mission because it seems very selfless and very genuine.  It is super rewarding!  I feel like I make a huge difference by being there and being warm, comforting, accessible, and providing excellence and expertise in a place where it is needed.  Geography might have been the single biggest reason I tried the job out in the first place, but the values and mission of the institution are why I’ve stayed rather than search for a position at a four-year school.  I haven’t even visited MathJobs once since going to FRCC BCC, and it is sure going to stay that way.  Unless something drastically changes, I see myself at Front Range Community College forever.

Me:  Wow. Awesome. Besides all that, what’s the best part of your job so far?

Ken: I think my biggest accomplishment has been getting three students to get positive scores on the Putnam.  Being that they’re two-year college students, and the fact that frequently even junior and senior level math majors at four year institutions get zeros on the Putnam, I was very proud of them and very pleased with this.

The best part of my work environment is how supportive administration has been.  Basically, if you have any idea that genuinely will impact student success, they have your back all the way.  My department chair the last five years, Christy Gomez, was a fantastic mentor.  Our president Andy Dorsey was very supportive and offered me an Innovation Grant when I pitched the idea of writing an Open Educational Resources Calculus textbook designed for Front Range (emphasizing our competencies and Active Learning/Learning Assistant use in the classroom).

Me: What are some big issues or challenges in your math life/career?

Ken: I think the biggest is just managing my own time.  I tend to want to take on so many cool projects at FRCC that I can spread myself too thin or get super sick because I haven’t been sleeping enough!  Fortunately, my fiancé Faith Mata is good at making me actually sit down and go to sleep when she can see that I look a little worn thin.  I’m also lucky that she’s a spectacular personal
trainer, so she keeps me from getting hunchy mathematician posture from too much typing and grading

Me: Have you realized anything surprising in the last few years of your math career?

Ken: Yes, the biggest surprise for me is how ineffective of a teaching method traditional lecture is. I always loved lecture-based classrooms and had no problems learning from it, but eventually I had to be honest with myself that I had a very unusual and fortunate background, being homeschooled by my math professor father in math. So, I had to trust the volumes of research out there that unanimously show that Active Learning is so much more effective and just let go of my beloved lectures! I still lecture a little of course on some topics here and there.  But by and large my courses have been redesigned to reflect that best practice.

Me: Any other questions I should have asked you? If so, what are they and what are the answers?

Ken: Hmmm, yes!  Maybe if you were going to ask me what makes my classes special or unusual, I’d say that I include a lot of math history in my classes, even when it’s not a history of math course.  My students always comment that they love the context it gives the material, and they never fully realized that math was not a system of rules imposed upon us by our alien captors to torture us, but rather a language invented by people to solve problems and to study for its own sake!


How does this compare with your math life?  What would you want to ask people about their math careers?  Let me know in the comments.

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Topics in Core Mathematics at Graterford Prison

Topics in Core Mathematics sounds like the blandest possible math class.  The course title is meant to convey the one important aspect of the class for many students: this class fulfills the core math requirement for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  Box checked.  However, the advantage of blandness is that it can be the base for anything.  This spring, my colleague Katie Haymaker and I taught TCM at Graterford State Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in the Philadelphia area.  I’ve written before about a talk we gave there and our math circle at Graterford, but this was our first chance to offer a course for college credit, through the Villanova Graterford program. Villanova is one of a large handful of US colleges and universities, including Bard College, Cornell University, and many community colleges, that bring professors into correctional institutions to offer classes for credit.  This is one way of offering higher education to prisoners; other schools, like Adams State in Colorado, offer correspondence courses.  Villanova’s program even gives faculty members full teaching credit for teaching at Graterford, which I have heard is fairly unusual. The goal of Villanova’s program is to be as similar to an on-campus degree as possible, with the same rigorous requirements in courses, and often the same professors teaching on-campus and off.

Some blog readers might have a chance to teach a course in this setting, though I realize that many will not.  Some things about this process and course can give some wider early-career insights, though.  For example, Katie and I would never have taught this course if Katie hadn’t been hanging out/networking at one of the monthly Faculty Friday happy hour events organized by the university.  That’s how she first met Kate Meloney, who runs the Villanova Graterford program.  Going to university-wide events like this has paid off for me in just meeting cool people, and sometimes these people connect me with something I’d never have known about otherwise.  Also, co-teaching a course was a great experience for me.  I had never attempted it before, and it turned out to be very rewarding.  We were also very lucky that the dean of our college gave us both full teaching credit for the course.  Before this, I didn’t know that I could apply for double-credit co-teaching with a colleague.  I would definitely recommend it, especially if you can convince Katie to teach with you.

Our experiences might also be interesting if you are simply trying to teach a core math course on campus, since our course was attempting to be as much like an on-campus course as possible, though without much technology or access to office supplies.  We designed our course around the text The Heart of Mathematics, by Ed Burger and Michael Starbird.  We chose this book because I had used it with great joy in a Math for Liberal Arts course at Colorado State University as a graduate student. The idea of HoM is to “make mathematics fun and satisfying for everyone,” according to the back cover.  I like the book because it starts with puzzles and works through some of the most fun big ideas of mathematics, without emphasizing computation or requiring any calculus or even much pre-calculus.  Our plan was to basically avoid anything that looked like what the students had experienced before as “math,” and hopefully thereby avoid the twin issues of past algebra difficulty and math anxiety.

On the first day of class, we explained our plan to the students.  As you might expect, someone asked if we would be teaching them anything they could use.  Where are the practical applications?  I felt that it was important to be clear from the start that applications of the sort you find in a calculus or algebra textbook were truly not the goal of the class.  We would teach problem solving techniques that could be broadly applied.  We would bring puzzles and weird ideas that would hopefully provide fodder for thought and conversation.  But we would not be learning to compute the half-life of uranium.  We would be learning about ideas, some of them with larger relevance.  The goal was to take a new perspective on what mathematics could be.  With that said, we started in on the puzzles, and all skepticism was set aside.  Arguments, however, were not.  We had SO MANY arguments about what the puzzles intended, what was fair in solving them, and what somebody really would have done in this ridiculous situation.  But these puzzles and arguments were a great hook.  This was definitely not what the students expected from math.

We eventually did sections on basic combinatorics, number theory, geometry, graphs, and probability from the textbook.  Highlights were Euclid’s proof that there are infinitely many primes, Diffie-Hellman key exchange, Euler circuits, the Art Galley theorem, and Cantor’s diagonalization argument leading to different sizes of infinity.  HoM is a really well-written book, and we used many of their ways of explaining things.  We also came up with some of our own material, drawing on our own interests, and found other resources.  For example, I wanted to teach the students about cryptography in my own way.  So I talked about symmetric ciphers, including encryption using a Viginere square with a keyword, cracking these ciphers, then introduced the idea of a “key book” which would allow for no repetition of the keyword.  The students then used Diffie-Hellman key exchange to agree on a page number in the key book to use for encryption. Here is the original assignment.

A student’s encrypted messages for his partners using Viginere square and key from a page of the book, agreed upon by Diffie-Hellman key agreement.

Another smaller activity that was very successful was our simulation of the Monty Hall problem.  One of the big constraints of working in the prison is the lack of technology.  We couldn’t just write a program to simulate keeping the door or switching a thousand times—we had to come up with some way to physically do it.  We ended up splitting the students into pairs and using set cards to stand in for the doors.  Two green set cards represented the donkey or can of soup, while a purple set card represented the new car.  One player shuffled the three cards and gave the other person a chance to choose a door (by putting a paper clip on a card).  The student with the cards would then show an unselected green card, and give the chooser a chance to switch.  The groups recorded how many wins and losses they had by switching and staying.  In some groups it seemed to make no difference, but when we added up everyone’s results we got very close to the predicted two thirds/one third proportion.  This five-minute activity cemented the concept in a way that my lecture definitely had not.

Our syllabus included homework, two tests, and a final project/presentation.  The students had presented puzzles in the first two weeks of class, and we wanted to end class with another presentation of some kind, where we could hear a bit from each person as an individual.  We decided on a poster session, which had a whole extra set of challenges inside an institution.  It wouldn’t be possible to assign the students to complete their posters outside of class, because the materials would be very expensive from the commissary and it wasn’t clear what they would have access to.  In the end, we had students pair up and choose a section that we had not covered from the textbook.  The students were to read their assigned section and meet with the partner (we had to make sure they were on the same cell block) to plan a poster.  They would have an hour on the last day of class to actually construct the poster, followed by an hour and a half poster session.  We also asked the students to prepare a sort of elevator speech, a 3-5 minute summary of their topic to accompany the poster.  We actually weren’t sure that the markers, poster boards, and glue stick would be allowed into the institution, and we weren’t sure if the poster session would really work, but in the end everything came through and the session was one of the highlights of my semester.

Poster on voting paradoxes.

Poster on non-euclidean geometries.

Poster on Euler characteristic.

Poster and origami on platonic solids.

This was one of many places where having two professors was invaluable.  Generally, our co-teaching took the form of alternating lectures.  While one person would lecture, the other would sort of join the class, occasionally asking questions, adding some relevant thoughts, and helping to clarify questions from the class when possible.  It took a lot of pressure off to share grading responsibilities, and enabled us to model the kind of interactions we wanted to see in group work and class discussion.  This poster session would have been much more difficult with one teacher, just for the time involved with having meaningful one-on-one contact with each student.  When it was time to start, we asked one member of each pair to stay with the poster while the other person walked around and learned about the other posters.  Katie and I had developed a simple rubric for grading the posters and presentations: 5 points each for content depth, content correctness, poster clarity, poster creativity/visual appeal, and presentation.  We assigned numbers as we went, to avoid a later session of agonizingly trying to remember our impressions.  Between the two of us, it took about 45 minutes to see all the posters in the first round.  We then had the students switch and we each went to the posters we hadn’t seen the first time around.  The presentations varied in quality (as presentations do), but a few of them were really strikingly good.  The posters also varied, in intent and execution, but again some were exceptionally well done.  I’ve put a few here, but more posters are posted on my website.

I had more fun teaching this class than I have ever had teaching. The most striking thing about the course was the amount of energy in the classroom throughout the semester.  The students were engaged and game, willing to dive in to any discussion, to speak up with questions, comments, and occasional complaints, and to try activities for themselves.  Every day when I walked out of class, I felt that I had actually connected with the students.  Along with this gameness, most of the students were fairly mature and serious about learning, while still being ready to make jokes and speak up in class.  I wished I could have brought my on-campus students, as a demonstration of what a classroom can be like.  I love working with my on-campus students, but I feel that self-consciousness and expectations of what a college classroom “should” be can really limit their experience.  What could college be like if students really engaged every minute of class time and saw class as a dialogue?  I have tried to create this classroom atmosphere in many classes, with varying degrees of success.  At Graterford, this atmosphere just happened on its own.

Debates abound about the value of providing a college education, especially a liberal arts education, to incarcerated students.  I believe strongly in the value of offering basic, vocational, and college education opportunities to incarcerated people. Educational opportunities are essential to opening viable paths for released individuals. I also believe that a college education can open doors in a person’s inner life, or at least provide access to some beautiful ideas and an intellectual joy that can be hard to find otherwise.

Two of the students in our class are graduating this year.  Both were really cool students to have in class, and have been working on their degrees for many years.  One was actually released in April—we worked with him by phone and mail to finish the course as he navigated the trials of re-entry.  He will graduate on Villanova campus this Friday with his friends and family cheering him on.  He is working two part-time jobs now, and just sent a text to let us know that he got a new job that he was really excited about.  The other graduating student is not getting out right now.  I have no idea when he will get out.  He was one of the quickest students I have ever worked with, and brought so much to the class.  Many of the Villanova graduates at Graterford become leaders in a very active alumni chapter at the institution, and help current and prospective students with classwork and navigating the program.  I think this student will bring a lot to the next round of students at Graterford.  I hope that our Topics in Core Mathematics course gave him something for himself, too.

In fact, I know that math infiltrated our students’ lives in unexpected ways.  After our class on Cantor’s diagonalization proof, a student told me that he and his wife had a game on the phone–the I-love-you-more game, essentially.  He said that where it used to stop at “I love you infinity,” the game now could proceed from “countable infinity” to “real number infinity.” Awesome.

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