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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Talks, Interviews, and Networking (JMM I)

Last Sunday, I managed to transcribe my notes from the four days of the Joint Mathematics Meetings into full paragraphs online. As is my custom for long trips, I will share these journals one by one over the next few posts.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

My day began at 06:50 for the official part, but I was jarred a little bit from my sleep earlier, since Andrei got up earlier in order to go on a run. He was not in the room when I woke up, but oh well! To my right, I could see the tall buildings around the Grand Hyatt, and the still-dark skies. Wow, it’s just like Lincoln with not getting light early in the winter! I walked to the bathroom, and donned my suit jacket, suit pants, and a purple button-down shirt. Without donning a tie, I then had a few cookies and chocolates from the bag, before then going downstairs via the elevator, and guessing incorrectly which door would open. Oh-for-one!

In the lobby, I grabbed an apple from the check-in desk, and inquired about places to go for breakfast nearby. Their suggestion: Ruth’s Chris Steak House attached to the hotel. No thanks–I’d rather not spend THAT much for breakfast! So, I instead walked around the block to enter the Washington State Convention Center. My wool overcoat was plenty sufficient to keep me warm. On the first floor, there was a small coffee/bakery place, at which I got a blueberry scone. It tasted good, but was three dollars and fifty cents. I guess I should say: Welcome to conventions and big cities on the West Coast!


Big placards reading “Welcome Mathematicians!” appeared at the entrance to the convention center. A long hallway ascended three times via escalators, from the first floor with the nice fountain, to the second and third floors with meeting rooms and an overlook, and the fourth floor with a large open area and a currently-blocked-off atrium. (They wouldn’t open for another few minutes.) During the downtime, I explored the rest of the fourth floor, flashing my credential to get past an area that led to the Skybridge. Nothing was happening there yet.

Returning to the area outside the Atrium, the doors opened, and there was a “mad dash” (not really) toward the registration area, including the AMS Abstracts and the free meeting tote bags. Then, after finding that my first desired talk was in a different building (The Conference Center on the catty-corner), I descended the three escalators to ground level, took the two crosswalks on the electric-line lined Pike Street, and entered The Conference Center.


Inside this Conference Center, the pillars denoted the names of the level: Yakima was 1, Chelan was 2, and Tahoma was 3. Level 0 was not accessible by the lobby escalators, but rather I proceeded past and then saw the blue “SKAGIT” leading to Level 0. Such fun names of the storeys! Down in this Skagit level, I entered Room 1, and listened to a talk on quantum weak values. For this journal, I will give a brief summary of my thoughts from each talk, but may not have much with some of the technical talks. Here, the idea was to use the set of two-by-two Hermitian matrices, also known as qubit quantum ensembles. This talk included a lot of notation I had never used before, so I was lost. אלה חיים (c’est la vie)!

I remained in The Conference Center, ascending from Skagit to Yakima to Chelan, and entered Room 2. The talk was from a Japanese high school teacher about “Making Problem.” In it, she described her philosophy of student-generated problems in math classes, to be done after the basic concept has been mastered. She found that the formulation was harder than the solution for her students, and some of the problems had a Brockmann-like creativity to them. She also gave information about math circles. Unfortunately, I had a difficult time making sense of her use of English.

From one talk to another, in a different building! I reversed my path back to the Washington State Convention Center, and then went up one escalator, landing in Room 212 for a talk about bike routes as a motivation for a graph theory problem. More specifically, NED circuits were considered. Although I don’t have a lot of background in graph theory or combinatorics, it actually seems quite interesting, and may be a hobbyistic or undergrad research area that I could do with my future students! We shall see!

Then, I ascended to Level 4, and saw Chris in conversation with a few other professors, including Mike from Towson. We chatted a bit about the job search, and he gave me some recommendations. If I am looking for a postdoc, I may want to consider North Carolina State. I can also look at the Department of Defense or the DHS. So many considerations, but I should keep my options open.

After leaving that circle, I saw Jay and Katie. In our conversation, my possible lack of confidence with my current situation was unmasked. The key for the job interview process, just as Mom and Dad have said time and time again, is to SPIN, SPIN, SPIN your positives, and even spin the negatives as learning experiences! I can’t block myself, as difficult as it is to avoid. Come on Noah, you can DO THIS!

I did some more exploration of the area since there weren’t other talks at that point in which I was interested. In the Networking Center along the Skybridge, I got to see a slight view of the ocean (or is it Puget Sound?) on the left, and tall hills to the right. The skybridge showed a cylindrical shape, and on the left (south) side, I saw Tim and we had a brief discussion. He strongly recommended that I apply for Project NExT, given that I aspire to go into teaching-academia.


Next stop: Room 2A. From the networking center, I took a right after doubling back, and went down two escalators to end up in a side area of the convention center. The talk was “Anxiety and Personality Traits of Students in Developmental Math.” His definition of Developmental Math is basically remedial courses that bring students up to College Algebra (i.e. MATH-120 at Stout). The course was self-paced and mastery-based, and he made it a psychology nonexperiment by using the Anxiety Scale AMARS. His conclusion: Anxiety may not necessarily hurt the students’ progress, learning, or grades.

I remained in the room for one more talk before the talks ended for the morning. It was “Students as Partners in Curricular Design,” and given from Roosevelt University faculty. Their Calculus II class is project-based, and undergraduate research is important there. The themes of students’ work was the gain of soft skills, mathematical maturity, and learning how to give and take feedback. This approach led to good student engagement, and led to real applications often working with data. Maybe it will plant the seeds for some ideas later. That’s why I took notes, besides for this journal!

I returned to the lobby area of the fourth floor, trying to meet some new people. I also ran into Laura Stout, and in doing that, lost a group from LSU. That’s fine–I’ll find another group, and I did! Amber and Rishitha from Butler, and Myron and Dennis (though I forgot their affiliations). After some random conversation, we all agreed to leave the convention center and find lunch somewhere, at about noon. We headed downhill after exiting, and I also ran into Kaitlin and Yuxin. [I’m guessing that my readers right now are looking for a croquet mallet to bonk me over the head with, given all the names I am introducing. Ha!] Good to see them, and I’ll see them on Friday night or sooner for an ESAM reunion!

We continued walking downhill past the Sheraton, and noticed hanging placards for Sushi Kudasai, Jimmy John’s, Taqueria (???), and TCBY. But we saw no entrance! The placards were poorly placed, but we entered the American Eagle on the corner of the building, and were told to continue up the block and there would be an entrance. There we go! We went up an escalator and found the food court. Myron and I got sushi, while the others got Mexican. After a somewhat long wait for the Mexican, we found a small round table. I’ll skip the lunch conversations, but it was enjoyable to get some social contact in. I also registered Amber’s phone number, as there might be board games tonight! It may also provide a professional contact later. It was 13:30 when we returned to the convention center.

Back to the registration area! Entering the far exhibit hall, there were a bunch of exhibits from various book publishers and mathematical organizations. I picked up free pens, notepads, and candy, among other items. At the MAA booth, I also picked up the snaky sudoku with errata on the directions (and maybe errata on the numbers given). But I didn’t spend that much more time, since I had an important appointment in the exhibit hall adjacent.

That appointment: interviews with [redacted] and with [redacted]. [Remainder of paragraph about my interview experience has been redacted for public view.]

I returned to the exhibit hall to look at more exhibits, and found the WeBWorK booth. There appear to be some new features versus what I saw even three weeks ago at Stout, but I found out that there are multiple versions that are in use. That is interesting to me, and I hope that some of the improvements find their way to the Stout system. I was also recommended to seek out certain problems more than others… the ones that use “MathObjects.”

Then, I headed back to Room 2A for a back-to-back set of MAA talks. The first one had an instructor running an experiment in putting a “bombshell” problem (i.e. problem that many people did poorly on. The “bombshell” is my term, not theirs) from Exam 1 onto Exam 2, one from Exam 2 onto Exam 3, etc. About two thirds of the students improved on those problems, and the average improvement was ten percent. So maybe students DO learn from their mistakes. In the second talk, there was a report of a flipped College Algebra class. This instructor reported better test scores, but worse course evaluations (with comments such as “Seems like a lazy way to ‘teach’”). I don’t want to try a flipped classroom yet, because at this early stage in my career, I find that student evaluations could be important. I’d like to get the basics down first!

After this talk, I had 20 minutes before the next talk that I wanted to hear. I noticed a voicemail on my phone, and it was from eBits. Unfortunately, the call was bad news. My hard drive had experienced a catastrophic failure yesterday, so they will have to replace the hard drive as well as the operating system. DAMN! I have no choice in the matter, but that is how it will go. The good news is that I had my presentation and source code on a jump drive, or else I would have been REALLY SCREWED.

For the last talk of the day, I went to Jay’s talk about graph builds. It orders the edges of a graph and “builds them up.” The question asks if we can prove how many builds result in connected graphs, and I appreciated the graphical consideration of the talk. It uses Catalan numbers and quite basic geometry, actually! I was able to follow it for the most part, and it’s a fun problem! Again, I wasn’t sure about all of the terminology, but at least my mathematical maturity is leaps and bounds above what it was the last time I was at the JMM (January 2009) or where I was during my first year at Northwestern!

Whew, it’s 17:00 and I’m beat from talks. Therefore, I returned to the Grand Hyatt, where Matt and Andrei were waiting. We were going to go shortly to dinner. Meeting up with Laura and Andy, we went northbound and looked for a place to eat. After crossing the bridge overlooking the Interstate, we shortly thereafter found Machiavelli, an Italian restaurant. A strong cheese smell emanated inside, and it would have been an hour-long wait. Therefore, we didn’t wait (YAY!) and looked for another place.

Continuing down that same street, we found Terra Plata, but after looking at the menu, deemed it to be too-fancy food (and the prices were also really high). I’m not a foodie in that sense! Across the way, we found Serious pie., and decided to give it a go.

Sitting at the bar, we also ordered pizzas–I got a simple pizza similar to what I get at Lucette. We chatted about various topics, but I lost track of everything that was mentioned, both at the bar and at dinner. Clearly, the conversations were not the most important part of the trip, so I won’t reconstruct them either. The pizza tasted good, and I’m glad I asked for light cheese. As is quasi-customary for me, I requested the most dangerous drink in the place: dihydrogen monoxide! I’m a wild man and DHMO hasn’t killed me yet!

We all walked back to the hotel around 19:15, and I got onto Andrei’s computer after having installed LyX last night. It did not take me long to cull my presentation from Thesis Defense to Ten-Minute Talk, but I’ll want to rehearse it before too long. Not tonight, though. I had received a text message from Amber inviting me to play board games with her and some other people in the Sheraton Lobby, and that sounds like a lot of fun! So away we go!

Myron, Dennis, and ??? were also there after a few minutes. We decided on 7 Wonders, but had to explain the rules to Myron and Amber. I came in second place in the first game after having a lot of Military and a fair number of blue cards and Wonder points. In game 2, I sneaked up with a lot of Science cards, but it was too-little-too-late and I came in fourth of five. It was still a lot of fun, but we called it a night at 22:00. I walked back to the Grand Hyatt, while averting the gaze of transients (sorry), and when I returned, I brushed my teeth and got ready to sleep. But first, I completed the sudoku puzzle. It was a fun challenge!



Second Semester: 6 days.

NU at Madison: 38 days.

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[M.M.X.I.V. 202] Reconstructed journal – July 21, 2008

As I mentioned in a post two years ago, July 21 has been an eventful day for me in recent years.  As it turns out, in 2008 this was a Monday, and an eventful one.  So, I want to reconstruct my journal from that day.  I suppose that this is a perfect addition to my Cast Chronicles.

Get ready for some misadventure