Evernote: My External Brain

A few notes with the linear algebra tag, as seen on the mobile interface

A few notes with the linear algebra tag

As we slide in to the new year, with resolutions to finally get organized, I wanted to share a quick tool that’s really helped me: Evernote. I know this is going to sound like some kind of paid promotion. I promise you it’s not. I’m just so genuinely thankful that I finally found an easy way to keep track of everything I need.

Evernote is my collection of bookmarks, important documents, and random lists and notes all in one place. It’s where I store papers I’ve been meaning to read or ones to reference, links for things I want to try out in classes, ideas for math tea activities, and all the music and books that people tell me to check out. As a person with a fairly limited long-term memory, Evernote is a lifesaver.

Evernote is an application for both desktop and mobile interfaces. You can type straight into it, send photos to it with your phone camera, forward emails to it, or clip websites into it from a browser extension. It’ll take video and audio notes too. Whenever I bump into something I might want to remember or use later, I dump it into a note.

What sets it apart from just a bookmark list is that every note is tagged and searchable. So when I’m working on getting a course ready, I don’t even have to remember the things I wanted to try out. I can just search for the tag for, say, linear algebra, and everything will pop up.

Notes can be shared with collaborators, which is nice for departments, research groups, or just keeping a shared family grocery list. I’m also a big fan of the scanner feature, that lets me scan documents in straight from my phone. Sometimes when students are presenting work on a document camera, I’ll scan it in to Evernote quickly and email it on to the class so they can have a copy to look at. It even makes scanned documents searchable, but it still seems a little shaky on my handwriting (which is completely understandable).

Other people have developed very specific ways to use Evernote to manage to do lists and create elaborate systems to manage their tasks. But they’re all too fiddly for me. I just keep a running set of tags: each course I might teach has one, as well as all my different research interests, hobbies, and projects. It’s possible to organize your notes into little folders called stacks, but I really don’t bother. The tags are enough for me.

So if you’ve got a neglected bookmarks folder, a stack of old post-it reminders, and a few random notes in your phone that you’d like to consolidate, give it a shot. And if have a tip for how you use Evernote, or if you prefer a different application, let me know in the comments.

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Getting involved with causes I care about is a more realistic new year's resolution than changing any of my bad habits. Here's a blast from the past from xkcd.com. Wise mouseover text:

Getting involved with causes I care about is a more realistic new year’s resolution than changing any of my bad habits. Here’s a blast from the past from xkcd.com. Wise mouseover text: “If at first you don’t succeed, that’s one data point.”   

Mathematicians have a super power: problem-solving. This power must be good for more than wowing our students with trig substitution. Lately I have run into some inspiring examples of mathematicians working to help address some bigger problems in the larger world. I’m sharing these this week in PhD+Epsilon because I know a lot of early-career mathematicians care about these issues. Also, my experience is that it can be hard to figure out how to engage when you might be consumed by the wonders and horrors job market, isolated and overwhelmed in a new job, or, say, freaking out about creating your third-year review portfolio or tenure dossier. So here are some worthwhile math-centered, mathematician-created initiatives that help solve problems you really care about, and manageable ways you can get involved to contribute or connect with other math people who feel the same.

Equal Opportunity for Women and Girls: Girls’ Angle is a non-profit math club with a mission “To foster and nurture girls’ interest in mathematics and empower them to be able to tackle any field no matter the level of mathematical sophistication.” Girls’ Angle began in 2007 when founder Ken Fan began noticing a systemic bias against girls in math education. He says, “the more I thought about it, the more I came to see that the way math is generally taught in the US is biased against girls for a variety of reasons, some more subtle than others. I saw many Math Circles sprouting up, but most were coed, and I didn’t see any program just for girls, run by mathematicians, where girls could keep coming back for more math. So that’s how Girls’ Angle started.” The organization runs a weekly club for Cambridge-area girls, and has hosted over 80 Math Collaborations across a wider geographical region. These are alternatives to math competitions in which groups of girls work together to solve substantial mathematical problems. Girls’ Angle also produces a Bulletin with articles about mathematics for middle school to high school students, girls in particular. I recently had the opportunity to contribute an article to the Girls’ Angle Bulletin, and it was incredibly fun to write for this special audience. The bulletin is seeking articles on real math, aimed at a math-enthusiastic middle/high school audience, written by active researchers and scientists. According to Ken, “All kinds of formats are welcome, including experimental ones, but the 2 things we reject are a patronizing tone and the watering down of the math. (It’s fine to address basic math, so long as it isn’t over-simplified.)” The Bulletin even pays for articles that are used. If you are a woman who will be in the Cambridge area, another way to get involved with Girls’ Angle is to make a Support Network Visit. Support Network visitors are “professional women who use math in their work in some vital way and visit the club to show the girls how and for what they use math.  They serve as role models and give members another reason to study math.”

To learn more, submit an article, or volunteer to make a visit, contact Ken Fan at girlsangle@gmail.com.

Environment and Climate Change: Every time I buy a plane ticket to attend some amazing but far-flung math conference, my conscience cries out that I am doing more than my share to contribute to climate change, and that it’s my fault that polar bears are losing their homes. Thinking about her own sabbatical travel, my former advisor Rachel Pries created Math People for the Planet, a Facebook Group (I’m not on Facebook, but you should join!) for mathematicians to “start a discussion about how the math community can reduce its carbon emissions while maintaining the vibrant discussions at conferences.” The JMM is the perfect place to begin: Anne Ho and Melody Alsaker have put together a simple slide that you can add to your JMM talk to start a conversation about climate change and how mathematicians can help. Rachel also started a Sierra Club Group to pool donations from mathematicians. The money goes to the Sierra Club group on International Climate and Energy http://www.sierraclub.org/international. Donations through Dec 31 are doubled by an anonymous donor. Also at the JMM, check out the MAA Invited Paper Session on Role of Modeling & Understanding Environmental Risks on Wednesday afternoon, which was organized by Ben Fusaro and features many talks on climate change and environmental issues.

Social Justice: I believe that the mathematics classroom can be at the center of the social justice movement. However, figuring out exactly how to bring this together with meaningful, substantive classroom activities can be daunting. Luckily, other people have done a lot of work on this. This is the focus of a special session at the JMM: the MAA Special Session on Intertwining Mathematics with Social Justice in the Classroom, taking place all day on Saturday, January 7. This session was organized by Catherine Buell, Zeynep Teymuroglu, Joanna Wares, and Carl Yerger, and has talks that can help if you are looking to create your own math and social justice course, or simply include social justice topics in the courses you teach already. If you’re not going to the JMM, here are some websites that can get you started from home: Radical Math, Dave Kung’s Social Justice Page, Daryll Yong’s “Social Justice Equity: STEM and Beyond” Reading List.

What other math-centered activism is out there? How can we get connected with others who want to make change in the world? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. I won’t be posting in January, since I’m using up all of my blogging mojo writing about the Joint Mathematics Meetings, January 4-7 in Atlanta GA. Check out the JMM blog, where I will be writing (with some other amazing bloggers!!) about all things JMM, including some of these activities.

P.P.S. Also, can I just share some more math New Year’s resolutions from Math with Bad Drawings?



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Semester Wrap-up

Hood College’s annual Geome-tree, made during math tea. Clearly superior to the neighboring department’s Chemis-tree.

As you can probably tell by my posting rate, it’s been a bit of a rough semester. I had more students and classes than I’ve had in awhile, and under somewhat different circumstances. Committee work really started ramping up. My research suffered. Eventually it got to the point where I felt like I just had to hang on and keep my head above water until the end. Which, barring some final exam grading, this is. Thank goodness.

I’ll start with the teaching highlights: my linear algebra class went quite well. I can’t say enough good things about the Inquiry-Oriented Linear Algebra curriculum I used, which I wrote about earlier this year. The students loved it, and came away with a much better intuitive understanding of the essential concepts of linear algebra than either of the two times I’ve taught this course previously. The materials for eigenvalues and eigenvectors are particularly interesting, and much richer than the purely computational approach I learned as an undergraduate. I didn’t get through quite as much as I did last fall, but I know I pushed that class way too fast and lost a few by the wayside in my relentless drive towards singular value decomposition.

I also tried out another idea: I gave a third of my final as an oral exam. Our linear algebra course does not have a proofs class as a prerequisite. A lot of CS and economics majors take it, who just aren’t as accustomed to rigor as the math majors. But I still wanted them to demonstrate a solid handle on the concepts, even if formal proof sometimes escaped them. A big part of the IOLA curriculum involved small group work and explaining that work to the rest of the class, so I wanted to evaluate them at that level.

The oral exams were fabulous. I asked them to walk me through how a few parts of the invertible matrix theorem fit together in my office. I let them bring a sheet of notes if they wanted it, and I scored each part according to a loose rubric I’d cobbled together from others I found online. I liked how I could prompt students a little if they got stuck and get a very good sense of how much they really knew, unlike a paper exam where they might have given up partway through. I will definitely be doing this again.

My stats classes were more of a struggle. I’d taught similar courses at other institutions before, but this was my first class at Hood at the 100 level, and I never really got a good sense of whether I was meeting my students where they were or not. There was such an incredible spread of skills and experience in the class that I always felt like I was boring half of them and terrifying the rest.

They eventually got close to where I wanted them to be, but it took a long, long time. I think part of the reason for the struggle was the classroom setup: I’ve never figured out how to do group work well in a computer lab. The lab was fabulous for doing computations, and infinitely preferable to the graphing-calculator-based way I’ve sometimes had to teach before, but facilitating real group work and class discussion in a lab is just not something I’ve cracked yet.

Spring should bring a much lighter load, but this semester, like a lot of 2016, is something I’m just glad to have behind me.

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