Monday, March 23, 2009

TVO's "Big Ideas": Statistics: What's the point?

On Sunday March 29th TV Ontario will host 2009 Big Ideas Best Lecturer competition. One of this year's finalists is a professor from York University who will speak on "Statistics: Whats the point?".

The beginning of this lecture is for anyone who would like a good introduction to what statistics is and why it is important. He gives a number of good examples about why numeracy is important. Towards the end of the lecture he explains vocabulary which, though important for his class, is not truly interesting for the general public.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The difference between $.002 and .002cents

If you have a while to listen to this you might get a kick (or very, very frustrated) by it.

A Verizon customer tries to convince several supervisors at Verizon that .002 cents/per kilobyte is not the same as .002 dollars/per kilobyte. I think that he explains it very well. Apparently everyone at the Verizon office gets these two things confused and refused to even admit that there is a mistake.

At some point they started quoting "$0.002 per KB or $2.05 per MB" which is correct. Their employees read "$0.002 per KB" as ".002 cents per kilobyte" which is not correct. Where does this confusion come from?

I found this after reading

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The relevance of math to everyday life

Here is an excerpt from an editorial in the Vancouver Sun from this past Sunday. I just got a copy by email and think it is worth passing along. I encourage you to read the whole article.

There is no escaping the influence, and the virtues, of math


In an effort to illustrate what he described as the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics, the late Nobel laureate physicist Eugene Wigner used to tell a story.

The tale concerned two former high school friends, one of whom had become a statistician working on population trends. The statistician was explaining the meanings of various symbols he used when his friend asked about the meaning of pi.

When the statistician explained that pi was the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, his friend responded, incredulously, that "surely the population has nothing to do with the circumference of the circle."

The friend's incredulity is understandable, since it's reasonable to wonder what a relatively abstract matter like the circumference of a circle has to do with a population. But that is the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics -- math seems to insinuate itself into everything, even things where it appears not to belong.

For example, everyone knows that math is absolutely essential to physics and, to a lesser extent, to the other natural sciences. But what many people don't know, and others choose to forget, is that math is crucial to the study of just about everything, including ecosystems, financial markets and sports scores.

Truly, everything is number, as the Pythagoreans said. And that is why everyone needs a decent understanding of mathematics.

The problem, of course, is that most people, particularly when they're in school, don't see how math is relevant to their lives. In an ironic way, this may be a direct result of its unreasonable effectiveness.

Heres what another blog had to say:

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Results of the survey

PDF of the survey results.

I wanted to make available the results of the survey that I asked you all to fill out. I had roughly 14-15 responses and I think that the feedback that I got ranges over a full spectrum of why people enrolled in the program and what they are finding the program is about.

I fear that the people who are not happy with the program (responses 11&12 answered 'no, they would not recommend') got the impression from outside influences what this program is about and not from us (both make reference to such). I am making changes to the program description, so if you have suggestions about how to make it clearer please let me know.

I am listening to your suggestions but I know I can't meet all of them. Those that have asked for 'more education' courses, we can only try. This program is a mathematics degree so we have (a) second choice on education courses and (b) the math courses are supposed to go above and beyond what you learn in high school so that as teachers you have a better perspective of what is in the elementary/high school/college curriculum and why.

We are trying to offer more semester long courses, this will improve over the next year. We can offer summer courses during the day *in theory* but all students who would be taking the course have to agree given our mandate of being a part time program. This year we wanted to offer one of the summer courses during the day but ran into a conflict with a student who works during the summers and needed the last course to finish.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Grades for a graduate program at York university

Students I have spoken to about grades in this program are surprised at the grading system when they finally encounter it. I should point out that the numerical grading scale that is published on the York website for undergraduate courses does not apply to graduate courses. There is no such scale that says 90-100 = A+, etc. for graduate courses.

The following is an excerpt from the graduate calendar:

Grades will be awarded for every course in which a student is enrolled in accordance with the following system:
A+ (Exceptional)
A (Excellent)
A- (High)
B+ (Highly Satisfactory)
B (Satisfactory)
C (Conditional)
F (Failure)
I (Incomplete)

A student who received in total any of the following combinations of grades for graduate courses may not continue to be registered in the Faculty of Graduate Studies and in a graduate program unless this continuation is recommended by the graduate program director concerned and approved by the Dean:
(a) two C grades for full courses;
(b) one C grade for a full course and one C grade for a half course;
(c) a total of three C grades for half courses.
(a) one F grade for a full course or two F grades for half courses; or
(b) one F grade for a half course and one C grade for a full or half

I encourage you to read all of the regulations at:

Friday, March 6, 2009

Why one would want to take more statistics

This is from

Correlation doesn't imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing 'look over there'.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

More probable Fall-Winter 2009-10 offereings

The mathematics department will be offering in the Fall-Winter 2009-10 year

R 6-9pm MATH 5020 6.0: Fundamentals in Mathematics for Teachers
M 7-10pm MATH 5410 6.0: Analysis for Teachers

We don't have Summer 2010 planned yet but are thinking about 'Math 5200: Problem Solving' or possibly I would like to offer it as another pair of 3.0 credit courses.

I have sent a message to the Education department and they just responded that they would be offering the following courses:

MATH 5900/EDUC 5841 Cr=3.00 Thinking about Teaching Mathematics - Fall 2009
MATH 5840/EDUC 5840 Cr=3.00 Mathematics Learning Environments - Winter 2010
EDUC 5215 Cr=3.00 Research in Mathematics Education - Summer 2010

The last class is not cross listed with our program but can be applied for through the graduate program director. Also I think that the Summer 2010 (since it is more than a year away) is still somewhat tentative. This past year our program was allowed limited enrollment in the education courses because they are not Math courses too. The limited enrollment was granted to those that had seniority in the program.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Women in Mathematics

An article in today's Toronto Star summarizes recent research on why there are fewer women in mathematics than men. In summary paragraph at the beginning of the article it says:

After wading through more than 400 academic articles on sex differences in math, they've concluded that it's not a lack of ability that keeps women from pursuing careers in engineering or computer science. Rather, it's a variety of factors, including a female preference for more people-oriented professions and significantly different lifestyle needs, such as having and raising children.

I'm not sure I like the article after that because the remainder tends to introduce more stereotypes than it tries to dismiss.

More technical versions of this summary can be found at:

Charlemagne’s Puzzles

Thought this might be of interest. Apparently Charlemagne commissioned a puzzle book during his time to encourage math literacy. Two puzzles from this book are republished in a book “The Total Brain Workout” by U. of Toronto professor Marcel Danesi. They are described in the following article in the New York Times.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What Do We Need Algebra For?

A story on NPR that I heard because I listen to NPR's most emailed stories. I think that this does not justify algebra to an M.A. in Mathematics for Teachers program, but it does talk about how calculators and computers have turned our need for an ability to do arithmetic to an ability to be "managers of numbers." I'm not wholly convinced that this argument gets to the heart of many of the places that algebra is used, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

Weekend Edition Saturday, February 28, 2009 · The mobile phone industry stuck a nerve among teachers this month. An industry trade group argued that cell phones should be allowed in the classroom, saying they can be used as a teaching tool to help children with their math skills — in particular, algebra.

Well, we're going to avoid that debate this week. But it did make us reflect: what exactly is algebra, and why do so many people find it hard to learn?

NPR's Scott Simon turns to Weekend Edition Math Guy Keith Devlin of Stanford University for help.

Here is the NY Times article about how the mobile phone industry is suggesting that cell phones are a good classroom tool to do algebra.

Online survey for the M.A. in Math for Teachers

I am conducting an online survey to get some feedback on the content and direction of the M.A. program. The surveys are anonymous and consist of 8 quick questions.

You can take the survey by clicking on the link below or by copying and pasting into a web browser:

You can take this survey once per computer. I will share the responses on this blog when the survey is done so that they can be discussed.

Winter 2009 Registration Reminder

Graduate students are required to maintain continuous registration. This means they must register in each term (Summer, Fall and Winter) until they complete their degree as either a full-time or part-time student. Winter 2009 registration deadline is March 27, 2009. Students who register after the deadline will be charged a late fee of $200.

Students should visit the FGS web site:
to register and view the Winter 2009 course timetable.

An earlier announcement was made:
Note: Winter Tuition Fees are due March 10th, see below.

Faculty of Graduate Studies revised dates and deadlines

These are just reminders and everyone is responsible for knowing the dates if they get these messages or not so pass the word along to your fellow students!