Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Beauty of Mathematics

Within Truman State University there are many different departments.  One of them is called the Truman Institute, and one of their goals is to find or create fun and innovative learning opportunities that do not fall into the mainstream college experience.

Although new, the Truman Institute now oversees the 26 year-old program called the Joseph Baldwin Academy (or JBA) for Eminent Young Scholars.  This program is for students all over the country in 7th, 8th, or 9th grade.  It is definitely geared for high achieving students who may not be getting enough of a challenge in their classroom at home.  To learn more, visit the JBA website.   

I first taught JBA in the summer of 2010, when I taught "How to Lie with Statistics."  Since it was my first time teaching JBA I made the rooky mistake of not preparing nearly enough material.  These students gobbled up statistics as a hound dog sniffs and gobbles up any scrap of food within reach.  My first two days worth of material was gone in less than a day.

I took several years off from that experience.  In 2013, I was ready to tackle it again.  This time, instead of teaching a course in statistics, which is what I solely teach each semester, I thought I would develop a class in mathematics, something I haven't taught since the 07-08 school year.

I titled it "The Beauty of Mathematics: Elementary Problems in Quantity, Structure, and Space."  This time around I knew what to expect.  Even knowing what to expect, I still assumed I didn't and prepared 1.5 times the material I thought I would need on a given day.  It worked, and I had one of the better experiences of my life. 

Each JBA course (there were 11 during the June 8-28 session and 9 during the July 6-26 session) meets with their students for almost 6 hours a day.  My class met from 9-noon and then again after lunch from 1:15-4pm for five days a week, and then from 9-11:30am on Saturdays.  In total, we are with the students over 90 hours for three weeks.

This may seem like too much.  I agree.  How can students be engaged with mathematics for almost 6 hours a day and not burn out?  The answer is that they cannot.  Maybe other courses are different, but I feel my students would have got the same from my course (and had a similar experience) if I had them for only 3 hours a day.  In my opinion, the students would enjoy having two classes instead of one, and it would be a tremendous relief for the professors who would only have to prep for half the day.  Still, 3 hours is a long time to keep students in the classroom.

I kept to a pretty basic formula for my class.  To begin each morning session, students would wake up their brains by taking 3 minutes to find as many sets as they could (there were six total) of the 12 SET cards (see the Daily SET for instructions and to play). This game caught on quickly among the students and I do not doubt they have all asked their parents for their own game.

The morning would then be broken up by lectures and working together on worksheets.  First they would see it done a few times on the board and then work on their own problems independently or in groups.  Several activities forced students to work together and share insight.  A few students spoke up and admitted that this was a good thing for them, since they had not felt the need to do it in their classes at home.

In the afternoon, I would always open up with a mathematical card trick that I would perform a few times before handing out directions on how to perform the trick themselves.  I would also have them write out how they thought the trick worked.  Thanks to the Card Trick Teacher for the many great tricks I showed them. 

The rest of the afternoon would follow the similar morning schedule of a brief lecture followed by a worksheet to develop and test their skills.  Both the morning and afternoon sessions would be broken up with a few 10 minute breaks.  Each session may have had a computer lab element to it, or perhaps a viewing of one of the many shows that Marcus du Sutoy created, including The Story of Mathematics, The Music of the Primes, and The Code.

On the first Saturday, I took students downtown to Kirksville's Farmer's Market.  There, they were able to explore both the market and what downtown had to offer.  Many students found an ice cream shop to their favor.  On the second Saturday, I took students for a long hike behind AT Still's Thompson Campus Center.  They have over a mile of wooded trails along which is an obstacle course of several challenges.  

During our last week together, I decided that we should do something fun and create our own little version of a Harlem Shake video.  The students and preceptors both were amazing participants.  Even though it was only three weeks, when you spend so much time together, it is hard not to get attached.  There were a few students in my class who impacted me deeply, and I them.

The experience was very rewarding albeit exhausting.  It has sparked my interest in the history of mathematics and statistics.  Since JBA, I have picked up several books from the library that I am working my way through.  I have finished Fermat's Enigma by Simon Singh and am close to finished with The Lady Tasting Tea by David Salsburg.

I left a few minutes at the end of our last day of class together for students to share their thoughts and feelings of their experience with The Beauty of Mathematics.  A few of them shared how it was the best class they had ever had, not without choking up a little.  They weren't alone.  I choked up right along with them.