The Bore Method, or Challenging Students

by Derek Smith

The other morning I took a break to make my news-browsing rounds and came across an interesting story on (Warning: only visit that site if you have time to spare!) The article is an engrossing account of scientific discorvey; a few years ago a doctor performed a stem-cell transplant to cure Lukemia in a man suffering from AIDS. Dr. Gero Hütter had the unique idea to use a donor with a naturally-occurring mutation which provides a level of protection against HIV. Timothy Brown now has no trace of the virus in his body. I found most interesting a quote from the doctor describing his literatue search:

“My first thought was, I’m wrong. There must be something I was missing.”

The next article I read described a similar, though more everyday, example of the excitement of discovery: the author’s struggle to learn a programming language. I had previously heard of Project Euler (also the subject of the previous blog post), but was unaware that it helped so much in the author’s pursuit. He attributed the success of the project to the structure of the problems, balancing the difficulty with the reward of discovering a solution.

“That’s the pedagogical ballgame: get your student to want to find something out. All that’s left after that is to make yourself available for hints and questions.”

He follows that statment with a quote from, I believe, R. L. Moore, who apparently structured his introductory topology courses in a manner similar to Project Euler. These stories reminded me the title of a book by Richard Feynman, “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.” I pulled up an interview with Feynman which begins with this story:

I have an friend who is an artist, and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. You hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is.” And I’ll agree. And he says, “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think that he’s kind of nutty.

Feynman may have thought the friend was nutty, but I’d be surprised if a single reader of this blog hadn’t encountered someone who espoused similar views on science or mathematics. The reason is easy to understand: capturing the power of a question in the classroom is not a straightfoward task. Doubly so when the students don’t have an intrinsic interest in the subject matter. I believe part of this is human nature. A few years ago I ran the LA marathon, spending the day afterwards lounging around I felt a little depressed. After setting this goal and spending weeks training, I found that I took little pleasure in actually crossing the finish line (it didn’t help to look around and see those both half and more than twice my age). It is in this sense that the usual undergraduate calculus course is criticized. What fun is it to see a seemingly random collection of solution methods to various integrals? I could set up a “marathon finishing line” in front of my door and cross it each time I left the house but that’s clearly not the challenge!

The fact that the colors and the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollenate it is interesting. It means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: is this aesthetic sense also exist in lower forms? Does it… why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the aura of a flower. It only adds, I don’t understand how it subtracts.

About Derek Smith

Former weather dude and scientific software developer. In the upcoming 2015-16 year I will complete my PhD at UCSB in nonlinear dispersive equations. I enjoy spending time with my two young daughters and running.
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