Lessons from a student poster session

I wrote last semester about my low-grade terror over teaching our senior seminar, which happens to be our math history class. This semester I’m teaching its continuation, which is a one-credit class facilitating their math history research project. Which has been no less terrifying, but at least prepping requires me to digest less medieval algebra.

The most challenging part about these research projects is that we’re hoping to push our students to do something more than just crank out a book report. We want them to conjure up some sort of actual nontrivial research question, and then develop an answer to that question. We’re not expecting brand new discoveries in math history or anything, but this shouldn’t be a questions whose answer can just be looked up in a book.

The Hood College senior class at the section meeting poster session

We spent a huge part of the semester just developing this research question. And thankfully I had help, because this was hard to do. This course uses the book The Craft of Research to explain all this stuff, and I really enjoyed reading and teaching from it. The text claims to explain, among other things, “how to turn a vague interest into a problem readers think is worth posing and solving,” which is exactly what my students needed. It also has sections on how to find and evaluate sources, or write introductions, or structure a paper. Some things are outdated, especially any advice about doing research online (none of my students had ever even heard of a newsgroup), but most of this book is classic. Even students doing more traditional math research would find it useful. I wish I’d read it as an undergraduate.

The two final products of this project are a poster and a paper. The paper’s due next week, at the end of the semester, but my students’ posters were made at the beginning of April in time to be presented at our MAA MD-DC-VA section meeting, which we hosted in conjunction with Frederick Community College.

I’d helped students put posters together before, in linear algebra classes, but math history posters was a whole new experience. It felt almost impossible to keep them from being walls of text. Sure there are pictures you can throw in, but it’s not like explaining the reasons for the shift of the cultural center of mathematical physics from France to Germany in the time of the French revolution has a lot of equations and graphs and tables in it. I’m still not sure how to resolve that problem, but otherwise they came out fine.

While I felt I did a decent job helping my students put their posters together, I forgot one thing: to teach them how to speak in a poster session. I just told them they’d answer questions when people walked around, but I completely forgot that it’s often better to just give a two minute spiel rather than expect attendees to read your (wall of text) posters while you stand there awkwardly. But I think they had it figured out by the end.

And we were able to field a 3rd place Math Jeopardy team, and a winning Radical Dash team! The latter was fielded largely from sophomores, so I hope this is the start of a Hood College section meeting dynasty. And maybe by the time they’re seniors I’ll have this math history course figured out.

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