Author Archives: thompsonb

Mathematically Bent Theater

Last night Colin Adams and the Mobiusbandaid Players performed four fantastic skits to a standing-room-only audience. The skits are a must-see JMM event!

The first was a tale of thievery among mathematicians in the old wild west mining finite fields for theorems.

The hero (Andrea Young, left), a horse (Adam Boocher, right) and the villain (Richard Bedient, behind)

The villain tried to steal a theorem, unfortunately his horse bears the brunt of the retaliation.

There was a skit in which a family held an intervention for their pre-med son, who turned to math. And one where an editor and a reviewer conspired against an author. Finally, there was an address by the new president of the AMS, who promised to build a wall between the AMS and MAA offices in DC.

Colin Adams, “Make math great again! No more square roots… And from now on (A+B)^2 = A^2 + B^2.”

Cat Cafe

If the frenzied environment of the JMM has got you flustered, perhaps a feline environment is what you need. I stumbled across The Cat Cafe on Google Maps and immediately recognized it as a game changer.

Game changer

I heard others had been escaping to the cafe and so I knew I had to go. I ran into a couple JMM attendees while there.

Tabatha, a post-doc at Purdue, has spent most of the JMM napping, but hopes to catch its tail end.

Tammy is tuckered after chasing down every string theory talk she could find.

Ernie forgot to secure funding to go to the JMM and tried to borrow my badge.

Schrodinger wasn’t sure he’d make it to the JMM and is glad to be attending. Here he is reflecting on category theory.

Wow. Everyone here is exhausted.

Not Ernie.

The Cat Cafe is open daily from 8:00-3:00.

Out in Math

It was really difficult to decide what talks to go to Thursday afternoon, so much was happening at once! But I’m really glad I ended up going to the MAA Panel on Out in Mathematics. The panel focused on issues that LGBTQ mathematicians can face when dealing with students, administrators, colleagues, and potential employers. Audience members shared their own stories and difficulties. Despite whatever challenges we may face after returning home, it was moving to be together in a safe, supportive space where people could share and work through some of those challenges.

Juliette Bruce, Shelly Bouchat, Frank Farris, Ron Buckmire, and Emily Riehl

It was upsetting (though sadly not that surprising) to hear about some of the harassment and discrimination that continues today. Though discomforting, sometimes those are the most productive and important feelings one can have. As a cis man in Massachusetts who is often assumed to be straight, it can be too easy for me to become complacent.

The panel was organized by the cleverly named Spectra which has been meeting for the better part of three decades. The 1995 JMM had been schedule to be in Denver, but in late 1992 Colorado passed a constitutional amendment that banned local anti-discrimination laws. The MAA and the AMS quickly moved to change the venue to San Francisco, so that the meeting would be something everyone could feel safe attending. Out of this a group of mathematicians (now Spectra) started organizing panels, on-site receptions, and off-site receptions at JMM meetings.

I always appreciate learning about histories like this, because I appreciate the work done by those who have come before, and because seeing how far we’ve come makes me feel a little bit better about how far I see we still need to go.

Mathematicians Teaching Intro Stats

Yesterday, I went to a panel about mathematicians teaching statistics. My department is a math/stats department so I have had the opportunity to TA many statistics classes, and I’ve really enjoyed it. The panelists all followed a similar trajectory of being forces to teach a statistics class, doing so as if it were a math class (heavily focused on definitions, equations, and procedures) and then over ten to twenty years reconstructing their class into something more focused on concepts, real world examples, and technology.

From left Charilaos Skiadas, Hanover College, Sue Schou, Idaho State University, Chris Oehrlein, Oklahoma City Community College, and Pati Frazer, St. Lawrence College

A lot of my students know how to follow the procedures of a hypothesis test quite well, but I can tell they don’t know really understand what a p-value is, and I wish I knew how to impart that understanding in the brief once-a-week discussion sections I have with them. The logic of hypothesis testing is more important, and more likely to stick with them than the details of each of the different models used in various hypothesis testing. If they do go on to use statistics in their work, they will likely be using technology, and it is the deep understanding of what a hypothesis test is that will ensure they use that technology appropriately. What I don’t think I fully appreciated before this panel was the extent to which a focus on procedures and equations can get in the way of learning statistical thinking.

The panelists have gathered a lot of useful information on this page, including links to real world data, curriculum recommendations from the MAA and ASA, and statistics teaching communities. I’ll be looking back to this the next time I get to TA (or teach!) an intro stats class.