Mathalicious – An Innovative Approach To Teaching Math

mathaliciousI am really curious how well the team at Mathalicious will do at integrating into the wider math curriculum. I have long been a proponent that most of our math teacher/professors are great at teaching the fundamentals, but that the approach often lacks the necessary connection to the real world. Heck, even though I excelled at math all the way through a Masters in Engineering, I would typically just “go through the motions”. The light bulb didn’t go on for me until I was trying to solve problems in the real world while working as an engineer. Would it have been that difficult for professors to start a semester off with a real world example rather than just diving into proofs? Maybe you begin with a scenario that would be difficult to solve without the liberal use of say, differential equations, and then revisit this example as the students acquire new skills. I have always found that I retain knowledge better if I first construct a framework upon which to hang new knowledge on.

Of course, it is possible that some of the higher order math classes are just meant to teach us how to think critically, but some of the lower level and useful course are taught with the same amount of obscurity.

So, good luck to the team at Mathalicious. I hope they spark a revolution, or at least give the best teachers at least one more tool in their arsenal.


Uh-Oh! Algebra Is Too Abstract To Bother Teaching Anymore.

At least according to this opinion piece in the NY Times.  I’ve talked about it before, but it warrants repeating: learning math is not about memorizing formulas or following the bouncing ball to get to the right answer. It is about understanding abstract thought and learning how to think. Algebra is that first rung of mathematics that has nothing to do with numbers, really. It is about using variables to stand in for relationships, balancing equations to show that input equal outputs, and presenting scenarios that could actually appear in real life and that a calculator can’t help set up. Heck, just the other day I was looking to buy a new computer monitor (adding a new on to my setup). My current monitor had a 16:10 ratio. My new one would need to be 16:9 (the new “standard”). However, the vertical height needed to be the same so that an image would not have to re-size as it went from screen to screen. To make matter worse, most of the websites only release the ratio and the corner-to-corner distance (viewing).  So what size monitor would I need to get? My problem was rather unique, a calculator can’t help me, and I had no idea if I could trust some of the random calculators out there. Of course, a simple algebraic equation and a spread sheet and I had my answer. I was able to match my monitor vertical height to within a few mm with a simple equation. Because I know algebra, I new that an abstract relationship existed that I could exploit. Now, of course, there is plenty of opportunity (engineering speak for “lots of problems”) to improve the way we teach math to kids. I absolutely love what the folks over at the Khan Academy are putting together. I love how they are breaking down the material, making it accessible, and doing their best make it fun and approachable. So why not just improve our teaching methods rather than simply ditching the material?

Is Math Beautiful?

I get a lot of questions about “math being too difficult” (answer: the passion for a subject often overwhelms the difficulty, usually influencing those studying advanced mathematics; at the lower levels you sometimes have to just grin-and-bear it) or whether or not math skills are innate or learned (answer: a little of both). Rarely, however, does some reach the level of mathematical understanding that the difficulty gives way to beauty. That why I love the work of the Enginarts’s featured in this article. Even if you don’t understand the math behind the structures, I believe you can see how complicated (yet oddly calming) the final product is.

What is the most difficult engineering discipline?

This is an interesting question and one that is surely on the mind of just about every student debating an engineering career.  However, the question really isn’t that appropriate. After all, if you are thinking about entering the engineering profession, then you really shouldn’t ask yourself what the easiest path is. That kind of thinking will only add to the 50% dropout rate amongst engineering students. Look, if you are doing it right, school will be challenging and rewarding, regardless of the specific degree.  Pursue what you find interesting and you will find that the course work is “easy” for you.

With that disclaimer in mind, I thought I’d see what the general consensus was for the “most difficult engineering discipline”. There are a few great threads on the matter going on here, here, and here. According to the commenter’s, it would appear that Chemical and Computer/Electrical engineering get the “most difficult” prize (with a polite nod towards the rocket scientists and the biomeds).   For that to be true, we would expect that the total number of Chem/Comp engineers to be far less that than the other major branches (they are). We would also expect the Chem/Comp graduates to earn more than the other major branches (they tend to).

Thus, one should probably assume that Chem/Comp is one of the more difficult paths to pursue if you aren’t particularly geeked about the subject matter. But, really, this could be said about any of the majors at a competitive school (architecture was dubbed archiTORTURE on my beloved campus, but the students actually doing the work seemed to love it).

So what to make of all of this?

You need to think critically about what kind of engineering type activities you like to do (coding, working on cars, writing, research, etc.) and then pick a branch that will get you there. Can’t decide? Then consider taking the Mechanical Engineering path.  ME’s are widely considered to be “utilitarian” engineers, meaning that they can be plugged into any organization, in pretty much any role, and get they job done. Plus, the fundamental thing you learn in any engineering discipline is how to think. Get good at doing that and you will find yourself employable for the rest of your career. With an ME degree, you can go anywhere (but you may not make the most money).

For me, the bottom line is simple: Follow your passion, do what you love. If you are chasing the money, or chasing the easiest path, then you will usually end up disappointed.

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