My Presentation and a Reunion (JMM III)

This is Part 3 of four of my Joint Mathematics Meetings journal. You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 is here.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Good morning at about 07:00! This time, I slept soundly through the noise of the others walking around. My accoutrements today were the green button-down shirt, a Noah’s Ark tie, and Covington slacks. I didn’t wear the suit jacket, since it didn’t match the remainder of the clothes (does that really matter to me, though?). After about thirty minutes, I headed off to the convention center just as in the previous two days. Here we go for another day, and today I have no “required” activities other than my talk!

On the sixth floor, there was a panel talking about the preparation gap in calculus classes and what to do about it. This is akin to what Greg told me yesterday–at Stout, 010 students are expected to know nothing and probably know nothing; 200- and 300-level students know what they should know (ostensibly), and 121 and 153 students probably have the largest gap between background and expectation. They described characteristics of successful calculus students, and talked about placement exams. A list of schools that use flipped Calculus I classrooms was enumerated a bit, and it was interesting.

I should consider using ConcepTests if I want to add conceptual questions to my homework and/or exams. However, prepare to hold students’ hands through these exercises, as they may rebel otherwise. It is important to balance the skill-building with the basic concepts. Another panelist considered the idea of shuffling the order of topic presentation in the calculus sequence, such as moving vectors to II and infinite series to III. That would be a great experiment, and it is successful at some schools. It raises a lot of red tape, though.

The flipped classroom model, and active learning in general, may help to reduce the gap. Applied classes may hold more interest to the students, although they must be willing to work for it. If you want to experiment, be upfront with your students about what you are doing and why. You may want to assign small reading assignments about the theory of teaching and learning to corroborate your rationale!

The interim of 20 minutes before the next talk was unproductive, so I will simply move on. I listened to a talk about using Sage in an ODE class. The disadvantage of any programming language in math classes is the steep learning curve. The talk went in two directions–one of them referring to advantages of open-source E-textbooks and implementing Sage code within the notebooks. It is editable and will return to the nonbuggy form if you hit Refresh, which I wish were true with other code–ha!

The following talks considered inquiry-based learning on an individual, and then departmental level. The talks were from Nazareth College, which only has 1 section of calculus each semester. The speaker lost the zen for lecturing, and went to a flipped classroom after a short time! Her colleagues supported inquiry-based learning (IBL), which helped. It encourages student participation through presentations. The in-class nonexam component counted for 25 percent of the grade, and I can see that working out, to encourage (strongly) that students come to class! In the departmental part of the story, it was trying to generalize the IBL that worked well in higher-level classes, to make it work out in lower-level classes. They found that even with active lecturing, there is a disconnect between people’s notes and their assessment scores. It’s interesting, as IBL can nip difficulties in the bud right there.

Each of these experimental techniques will be good for me to consider in the future, but because they carry the risk of lower student evaluations, I may want to hold them on the back burner until I am well on my way to tenure. I still think I can take lessons from these talks in order to improve my teaching next semester, and I will do that!

After this talk, I went to the Networking Center, because Ben had planned to meet me for lunch. We met at about 11:11 (ha), and left the convention center. Going a little further into downtown, we stumbled upon Benihana and the Mustardseed Cafe. Both of us got some stir-fries with veggies, and I added tofu to it. Since Ben doesn’t eat non-Kosher meat when eating out, I am employing my “Jewish acquiescence” personality. That got me thinking about a word from psychology that is the opposite of acquiescence when the participants think that they know the research hypothesis, but I forgot what it was. (Later, I realized that the term was “rejection response.”)

At lunch, we discussed our research and graduate school, as well as bridge and ideas about activities. Things are much different from the way that they were in Chicago for both of us, but life indeed changes! He was surprised when I mentioned that I had been to Adath before, and of course it led to a few quick stories about Sarah and her family. These conversations are always so much fun, and I’m glad to have friends from all over!

We returned to the convention center, and I went to a talk about guided notes in pre-calculus classes. This is a variant on flipped classrooms, when the textbook replaces videos. It considered a satellite campus of Ohio, as well as North Texas. It sounds good, but might not be as effective for large classrooms. One of the takeaways that I got: With any sort of teaching technique, you may want to survey the students at some point.

It was then time to head over across the hallway on the sixth floor, and I was listening to a PDE talk which I honestly failed to pay attention to, since I was psyching up for my own talk. After I set up my presentation, I noticed that Kaitlin and Ben were there to listen to me. Hooray! In my talk, I introduced the idea behind interface cracks, did a quick synopsis of the equations and boundary conditions, and summarized my use of mathematical techniques. There weren’t a lot of pretty pictures, but I think it worked. Nobody asked any substantial questions afterward, but that is how it goes. I might get contacted later by someone anyway!

I then headed to the Recreational Mathematics seminar on another concourse of the sixth floor. It was about “When to Foul” in basketball. The speaker designs other kinds of strategy games, and his talk was fascinating. His model assumes that every 2 seconds, there is either a foul or defense, and that the offense may shoot. He used the minimax theorem, which suggests that it is better to shaft the opponent than to help yourself, especially when leading. It’s a recursive, rather than a statistical, model. What was found: the endgame of basketball in a close game is much like backgammon or chess!

Then, I headed to the second floor, and listened to a talk about journaling in general-ed courses for non-STEM majors. It may be useful to get students to appreciate math, even if they don’t like it. He assigned weekly journal assignments, and graded it based mostly on completion and effort. There is a lot of mathematical beauty that is obscured by formulas and computations. The talk was mostly a set of journal entries that the students wrote, so it was sufficiently interesting.

I returned to the PDE seminar, as there was a talk about Riemann-Hilbert problems that I wanted to listen to (though it was four talks away). The first talk in this sequence was about the more-complicated SIR model of frogs that are infected with the bacteria Bd. Some are inoculated, but new tadpoles are susceptible. It’s a system of PDE, which is different from other disease models that I have seen. He ran way over time and got the proverbial hook. The next talk was about quenching problems, which sought out critical domains of 2 nonlinear, parabolic PDEs. He used conformal mapping and Taylor expansion, but I wasn’t quite sure about the vocabulary “quenching” or what the point was.

The third talk was about transient states in vegetation, and considered pictures of semi-arid ecosystems in Africa. Desertification can appear by spots, labyrinths, or gaps. The rates of vegetation and water density were both nonlinear PDEs. This was a bifurcation problem and was solved with Sobolev spaces and an exchange of stability. OK, probably not in this way, but my notes are as confused as I was. Finally, the Riemann-Hilbert problem was used to solve the Helmholtz equation, when the boundary conditions were of the Poincare type on a semi-infinite strip. This ended up as a vector Riemann-Hilbert problem, which was reduced to uncoupled scalar RHP after a simplifying assumption.

By this point, I was done with the talks (it was 15:45). I happened to run into Esteban, who had graduated at the end of my first year at Northwestern. We chatted and caught up, though we will have another opportunity tonight. Great to know! Then, I went to the exhibit hall to burn some time. I bought a LaTeX book, saw some other exhibits, snatched some candy, and just walked aimlessly. Then, it was off to the Networking Center and beyond.

Undergraduate research takes on a lot of different faces, as I rediscovered at the poster session. Among the different topics, there were projects about calcium and heartbeats, stabilizing a stochastic differential equation, scholarship of teaching and learning, and population dynamics. The lattermost was a project from a Simpson student, which was nice considering the salience of Simpson in the last 36 hours! In some sense I am making connections here. Many other projects appeared, including thin film equations and the human eye, game theories, and lots of pure math that I was completely in the dark about. But with 340 posters, there was no way I would have been able to get through them all.

Back to the hotel, and taking a load off! I put most of my stuff into the suitcase, and shifted from my green shirt back to the purple shirt (it wasn’t soiled to what I could see). At about 18:20, I headed off toward the Elysian Bar. It went even further, toward 2nd Street, whereas the previous furthest I had gone was 5th. There were a lot of people walking around, as I passed a mall, a food truck parking lot, and some questionable characters. I easily found the bar, and saw Kaitlin, Yuxin, Mark, and Joe waiting outside.

We couldn’t get a reservation there, but we were waiting for a table which was evidently only about 30 minutes away. While we waited outside, there was some conversation, about various topics (mostly just catching up and such). We got in shortly after we were a full party (me, Kaitlin, Yuxin, Mark, Joe, Sarah, Esteban, Hannah, and Chris). Most people got some sort of alcoholic drink (excluding Sarah and me), but we also ordered food. My choice was fish ‘n’ chips.

As we drank and as we ate, lots of conversations came up. Of course, Where-Are-We-Now was one thing, but a lot of fun ESAM memories came up. Among these, there was the Max “WTF” incident, social outings, Sunday-night study sessions, chalkboard drawings, and a host of other things. It’s weird how first year was six years ago, yet it was “only” six years ago. How time flies, indeed! Some teaching and research philosophy also bandied around the table, as well as other ideas. Once again, how much fun to get friends and colleagues together! We also reflected on prelims and the evolution of the first-year students’ experiences (with how the students are taking initiative).

I stuck around as everyone but Wiggles and Hannah left. It was fun with more conversation, although I will skip most of the details here like normal. The randomness was higher, and there were a few incidents of me being the non-Washington third wheel. It is what it is, though! We all left around 23:00, as I walked back to the hotel, and they took an Uber toward another bar. Once I returned to the hotel, I stepped lightly, since Andrei was already asleep. I’m turning in too!



4 days until בשלח.

NU at Madison: 32 days.

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