Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why We Teach

If you don't read Inside Higher Ed, you missed a great article this week.

In a followup to his article about the murder of one of his students last spring,
Wick Sloane, an adjunct who teaches English at Bunker Hill CC in Boston writes about an experience in one of his classes this fall.

I have nothing to add to that article or the comments that appear there except the following: A semester does not go by without encountering a student whose life is or was changed by learning in one of my classes. One of those makes up for a dozen bad lab reports, or the slackers that drop a class after taking first exam without even bothering to find out what grade they earned.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

iPhone Homework

So I am working with a group of students the other day, and I notice a familiar web display on a student's PDA ... which I then realize is an iPhone.

Yep, she had been using its browser to enter the answers to the on-line homework system I use. She said she used the fact that she could do this to help convince her mom that the iPhone was a good investment!

The on-line homework system is not a proprietary one, so it was designed to be tolerant of lots of systems, including a PDA. I saw it demonstrated on a Palm about 3 years ago, so this did not surprise me too much. I just can't imagine doing much real work on such a tiny screen without one of those Fresnel lens contraptions seen in Brazil.

Which leads to the digression question: Is anyone else seriously disturbed that someone is using the theme from that dystopia film to sell a product?!?

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Engineering Calculus

I saw a comment over on Learning Curves about having to sub for an "engineering calculus" class, and decided it was worth posting a comment on the genre.

As a math BS and physics PhD with a father who is an engineer plus my own love of old textbooks, I have a unique perspective. I have actually seen a true "engineering calculus" text book, and suspect there is a place for something like it today.

My dad's calculus book looks bizarre to someone raised on Thomas (3rd edition) who has seen nothing but its clones and copycats over the years ... both back when I taught calculus recitations and today when I poach some parts of the subject by looking over the shoulders of my physics students when they are doing math homework before class.

The "engineering calculus" book dates to the post-war period, definitely before Thomas appeared (along with all the other post-Sputnik books?) in the 60s. It appears to have been designed for a quarter system and optimized to fit in with a calculus-based physics class that had its (very easy) first section as a pre-requisite. Also, from my current perspective, it might have accidentally managed to deal with the lack of abstract thinking skills so many kids bring to calculus.

It starts with the calculus as arithmetic, literally about doing a specific kind of calculation. It does not ignore the limit (like the infinitesimal approaches that were tried) but it does minimize it, thereby eliminating the several weeks of abstraction related to functional analysis in the typical text. Its goal for the first 10 weeks is to teach you to solve derivatives, integrals, and differential equations involving polynomials. (The only thing you really need for the first bits of physics, until you get to simple harmonic motion and need more.) I think they also did the log integral so they could do first-order linear diff.eqs which are also needed in physics.

The book then goes from concrete to abstract, revisiting the main topics to put in enough functional analysis to do derivations of derivatives of trig and inverse functions, chain rule, etc, and integrals of those functions. That is enough for simple harmonic motion by the time you get to it in physics (even if taken at the same time as this 2nd 10 weeks class). By the third 10 weeks, you are doing all the methods of integration and on to multi-variable calculus, just as in a conventional book, except the co-requisite requirements might ensure that the calc students knew some physics by this time, so the applications could be taken more seriously (assuming the math prof also knew that physics).

The rationale for this could be a simple as the fact that Newton had no need of functional analysis to do what he needed to do in the Principia. That approach to teaching calculus came much later, and mostly serves to puzzle the freshman taking calc I who wonders when they will ever get to calculus. (Answer: Sometimes it is after the first exam!)

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Big Day for Blasphemy

Browsing the BBC RSS feed today turned up all sorts of news relating to Blasphemy around the globe. And not all of it involved religion per se:

There was the story about the government withdrawing a statement about the significance of Lord Ram's Bridge between India and Sri Lanka in relation to a proposed coastal waterway.

News about a bounty being set for those who published a Cartoon of the Prophet made me glad I once got a chance to see an etching by Dali that is part of a series portraying scenes from Dante's Inferno ... as art rather than part of a religious controversy.

A German Cardinal described a new stained glass window in Cologne Cathedral as entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), a term with clear Nazi connotations in Germany. Oddly, this seems to be an example of act of civil blasphemy by a religious person, which must have caught him by surprise.

Gates says a 40% cut in US troop levels is possible by the end of 2008. When a Democrat calls for a reduction of troop levels by that amount in a year or so, he or she gets accused of a policy of "cut and run".

Greenspan attacks Pres. Bush on the US economy, while the Dollar hits new low against the Euro. We will have to wait for the Sunday talk shows or his Monday appearance on the Today show (and lots of others, I expect) pushing his book to see if the connection between these two stories is missed. After all, the blasphemy of a Darling of the Conservatives attacking a "conservative" President is not unrelated to the blasphemy of a "conservative" President backing massive deficit spending by a "conservative" Republican Congress. Will this lead to an insistence by the current Congress that Pres. Bush find some taxes to pay for the extra money he needs to pay for Iraq?

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Alternate Careers

Profgrrrrl pointed to the Career Cruising site and listed a username and password to enter it. Given her rather interesting results, I thought I would give it a try.

The first set of questions did not even put professor in the top 40, but did include quite a few things that I have done in the past (highlighted in bold face or italic depending on how seriously it was done), although not necessarily as an employee with that title. Some were done in the ancient past, when the term had a somewhat different meaning.

1. Multimedia Developer
2. Astronomer
3. Optometrist
4. Website Designer
5. Desktop Publisher
6. Criminologist
7. Cartoonist / Comic Illustrator
8. Computer Programmer
9. Oceanographer
10. Animator
11. Driving Instructor
12. Video Game Developer
13. Computer Engineer
14. Physicist
15. Meteorologist
16. Mathematician
17. Environmental Engineer
18. Actuary
19. Biomedical Engineer
20. Civil Litigator

Seeing astronomer in there is interesting. I've done some amateur observing and worked with a planetarium, but don't own a telescope. Ditto for meteorology, with an emphasis on storm watching and tracking. But my first degree is in mathematics (which I have also taught) and I could slam code with the best of them back when I felt like doing it.

My second pass, after including education level and answering another set of questions, did not include programming for some reason, but pushed Professor into the top 10. Maybe the program sensed that I no longer like slamming code.

1. Computer Trainer
2. Optometrist
3. Criminologist
4. Business Systems Analyst
5. Multimedia Developer
6. Astronomer
7. Professor
8. Announcer
9. Mathematician
10. Meteorologist
11. Physicist
12. Computer Support Person
13. Historian
14. Computer Engineer
15. Judge
16. Database Developer
17. Artist
18. Anthropologist
19. Writer
20. Environmental Engineer

But Optometrist? Someone seriously missed the boat on that one.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rush to Failure

One remarkable statement in the testimony of Gen. Petraeus missed getting media attention even though it would make the perfect title for a book about the entire Iraq policy of President Bush.

He said we should not be "rushing to failure" as we face the "imperative of transitioning responsibilities to Iraqi institutions and Iraqi forces as quickly as possible" (emphasis added).

Although common in news reports, it is pretty hard to find much commentary that even mentions this phrase. Michelle Malkin heard it and blogged the sound bite "rush to failure", but did not analyze it as a warning from the General to the Bush administration to alter its long running, and failed, "surge and run" policy in Iraq. I'm kind of surprised that Democrats did not pick up on the razor's edge between destroying the Army and failing in Iraq that Petraeus clearly was walking down as he reported to Congress.

He also runs the risk of telling participants in the Iraqi Civil War that they only need to lie low between now and next November to achieve their goals. Lighten up a little bit and watch our troops leave, then attack. In particular, I would not be surprised to see a huge rise in violence during the last few months of the Bush administration, after Bush has cut troops along the lines mentioned in this week's testimony. Petraeus told the "enemy" (I put this in quotes because Petraeus made it abundantly clear that he did not view our opponents in Iraq as a threat to the US) it would be all theirs if they play along, just as he told them that we cannot keep this up even if they don't play along.

I have not seen much mention of his seeing a quick drawdown of the surge as an imperative, even though his prepared testimony was quite clear on the point. Indeed, he saw it as a strategic necessity for "long-term US force viability". He clearly knows that the Army is seriously threatened by the policies being followed in Iraq; he has probably been told by the JCS that we cannot sustain a force in excess of 150,000 for more than a year without Bush leaving the Army in a state similar to it was after Nixon was done with it. That may be why he stated that "Force levels will continue beyond the pre-surge levels of brigade combat teams that we will reach by mid-July 2008" (underlining emphasis in the original). It also may be the case that even this will not be enough to prevent long-term damage to the US Army.

Now I just hope that he does not cut and run before the mission is complete. We have not had a General see this war through in the way that Eisenhower did in WW II, or Westmoreland for most of Vietnam. And we certainly have not seen one get called back out of retirement for a second tour of duty in Iraq in a "stop loss" order like the troops have experienced.

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