Vito Prosciutto: Teaching community college math on the road to a PhD.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Curious demographics 

Looking at the sign-in list for my class where I asked students to identify the last math class that they took and when, I can see that the vast majority of the students are freshmen who took precalculus (or above) as HS seniors. There's clearly something wrong with our math placement test. I think that fixing this could allow us to eliminate maybe half of the remedial math classes without any penalty in how well we educate students.

It also occurs to me that it would be a very good thing to replace the standard skip Calc I for a 4 or 5 on the AP test approach with a new post-AP Calculus test designed to focus on the material that's not covered on the AP test.

I definitely need to speak with the Director of Undergraduate Studies about this. I only have a bit less than two semesters to make my mark on the University's policies.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Financial aid! 

After a bit of dealing with non-functioning computer systems, I spoke with someone in the financial aid office and got my aid info sooner rather than later. I've been offered enough loans to cover my expenses (so in case anyone had stopped by while I still had the "pay for grad school" stuff on the right, you'll notice that it's now gone). Not having to worry about money makes school much easier to deal with.

First teaching day of the semester 

There is a palpable difference with the algebra II students that I have this year compared to last year's algebra I students. The gender imbalance seems to have disappeared, although I didn't do a real count. There was one homework problem asked about in both classes, although it seemed like the later class may have moved a bit farther ahead in the homework than the earlier class.

It looks like a good bunch of grad students in our shared office this year. I had been really concerned that I might develop an anti-Asian prejudice last semester, and having a group of Asian TAs who are a bit more gregarious and who will interact with me and other non-Asian grad students looks like it will make a big difference in my perceptions. This is a good thing.

Sure, I have some immediate financial concerns, but in general I'm a much happier person nowadays.

Monday, August 25, 2003

Good news 

It looks like the math department set a new record for last minute TA hires. I get called at about 3 this afternoon with an offer of a TAship. That helps a lot with this semester, but spring is still a worry for me. I'll have a report tomorrow of teaching.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Stand and Deliver Revisited 

Like many a math teacher, I would assume, I was inspired by the story of Jaime Escalante in my decision to pursue teaching. I decided that the movie doubtless offered a distorted version of the story, so I managed to find Jay Mathew's book on Escalante to find out more details on how Escalante made his mark.

About a year ago, I was pointed to this article which serves as a sort of coda to Mathew's book. I'm not sure that I agree with all the conclusions reached in the article, but some really key issues are raised.

Something that makes it harder to motivate students 

Just read this story: As State Colleges Trim Classes, Students Struggle to Finish

I'm seeing it on the front lines. The quality of the education at the state universities is going down while the cost is going up. I met a girl today who's a high school senior and trying to figure out how to go to college. Her plan is to join the Navy and hope that she doesn't get killed in Iraq. It was very hard for me to restrain myself in that I see how awful her choices are. She's at best an average student. There's not going to be a top-tier school spot1 for her where financial aid will cover most of the cost of attendence like I had. It'll be quite a bit of distress for her when she gets out, finds out that her GI bill money still won't cover state tuition, and anyway, there's little chance of getting her degree in four years because most of the required classes aren't offered because the budget doesn't allow them to be.

Note 1: I should point out that I don't mean strictly the Ivy-league schools in this characterization, but rather those highly selective private schools who have sufficient endowments to offer sufficient financial aid to completely cover the difference between cost of attendence and the FAFSA-determined EFC.

Friday, August 22, 2003

Brain Rot 

I've decided to start moving my math teaching book mark list over to this log, and I'll put an entry in the log for each bookmark as they come. The first entry I'm moving over is an essay by Mathematica programmers Theodore Gray and Jerry Glyn, Will Mathematica rot students' brains. (As an aside, I discovered this essay courtesy of a friend pointing me at the story of Theodore's Sodium party and the rest of his site is well worth investigating for anyone who is intrigued by, well, anything vaguely scientific I suppose.)

This is the essay which completely turned me around on calculators in the classroom (although my experiences as a TA confirmed me in this metanoia). I think that the most blatant example of how calculators have changed the math curriculum even in my day is the lack of instruction in calculating square roots by hand. This used to be considered an essential skill, but while it was in my high school algebra text, it wasn't taught.

To a certain extent we're undergoing a more dramatic sea change in today's math world where calculators (particularly graphing calculators) make it possible to do mathematical tasks that would have been much more complicated before. A few button presses to calculate a definite integral, etc. I think that we're on the cusp of redefining mathematics education, although the politicians and the demagogues continue to have their say, unfortunately.

The impact of calculators and computers at the high school and college level is simple enough. It's now possible for students in a precalculus class, for example, to tackle questions of complicated definite integrals with minimal effort (although some of the examples of doing this seemed inordinately convoluted).

At the elementary level, things are a lot more complicated. Is it really necessary to do the kinds of arithmetic drills that were common when I was a child? I'm not sure. Theodore and Jerry find value in addition, but to me, long division is where it's at. After all, there's a whole world of mathematical discovery lurking in long division (starting with polynomial division, moving on to the Euclidean algorithim and thence to a whole world of number theory and discrete mathematics to touch just the tip of the iceberg). On the flip side, this is not the level of mathematical exploration that will be demanded of most of our students. As I've found, an inability to multiply 18 by 8 without a calculator does not necessarily imply that a student will not be able to master algebra (or at least grasp the concepts well enough to average 70% or above on tests and quizzes).

There's another side of this which is another important question to address: The use of technology in the classroom can open a divide between those who have the resources to obtain the technology and those who don't. Consider, for example, that while a basic supermarket calculator will run only $5-10, with basic statistics available for under $20, graphing calculators come in at $60-100 or more. Mathematica for students is $140, and the compute that can run it will be at least $500. That's an awful big bite if you're trying to raise a family on minimum wage.

I'd love to hear comments from any readers of this blog (or acknowledgment of the existence of any readers of this blog).

Financial worries 

It's Friday before classes start so that means that there's still some chance of a TAship turning up. I'm of mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it will be very difficult to deal with schedule-wise. I'll be asked to have two hours of classroom time along with an hour in the math lab. This on top of my classes and observation hours would mean that I cannot really consider any high school for observation more than a couple miles from the university.

On the other hand, I love TAing, and I could really use the $800/month that they offer. The one current bright spot was that I was offered a tuition and fee waiver for this semester so that's $2750 less that I need to come up with, although the bill that will come in October will still be for about $750. Not to mention that I still need to pay my summer bill somehow today. The loan application won't be completed until the end of September at the soonest, and the initial loan amount they're offering won't cover my living expenses at all. I've got to submit more paperwork which will take another 8-12 weeks and then they'll let me have more money. Maybe. At least if that comes through the spring, when I'm student teaching, will be a bit more rewarding.

My morning class is abstract algebra. I loved the 300-level version of this class, and I'm looking forward to the 500-level class. I picked up the text over the summer and worked through about half the problems from section 1.1 earlier in the month, but other pressing concerns have sidetracked me from finishing the book (said with a sly grin). I've not visited the book store to find out the bad news about my other classes yet.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

The semester ahead 

Classes start next week, so a bit more news will start appearing here, assuming that anyone even looks at this. My course schedule consists of two evening classes and one morning class. Way to make having a job near-impossible. I'll see if I can't get some tutoring work at the local community college perhaps. I also do my last round of observations before student teaching begins. The local school district may go on strike this fall and I need to take that into consideration in my school selection for observations. It's a pity because I'd like to try to do observations somewhere very close by to make my life a bit easier. I suppose though I can travel a bit especially with the large open space mid-day in my schedule.

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