Saturday, May 30, 2009

Mathematical Moments from the AMS

I have noticed posted in the York University math department near the main office (and more recently elsewhere) a number of very good single page poster/summaries of examples of where mathematics has managed to solve some very practical problems. I took a look online and these posters are freely available from the American Mathematical Society.

I am writing this blog entry about them to suggest that you take a look and consider hanging them as math eye candy to in your classrooms and departments. The summaries are written for a general audience and are very good explanations of how mathematics is used in solving practical and interesting problems. Sometimes the posters are accompanied by additional teaching material such as podcasts and papers.

One example given was about a mathematician who won a Grammy for recovering recordings of Woody Guthrey using signal processing techniques. Another was about how it is possible to detect if a digital photo has been altered. Other examples in the area of digital technology include data compression, speech recognition, GPS, and digital movie animation. There are other examples from science, sports, art and langugage.

If you are looking for something to spark students interest in mathematics or even idea for classroom material this is a great resource. I recommend that you find a color printer if you do since they are not nearly as flashy in black and white. If you want to explore these topics further the online resources also seem very good.

Some recent announcements to the mailing list

Posted May 14

Subject: Extensions of Program Time Limits for Degree Completion and the CUPE Back-to-Work Protocol


Please find the following communication from the Faculty of Graduate Studies, regarding Extensions of Program Time Limits for Degree Completion and the CUPE Back-to-Work Protocol.

The document is posted on the FGS website at the following link:

Posted May 27


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. Summer 2009 registration commences on April 27, 2009 and the deadline for registering is June 15, 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 summer 2009 course timetable.

Please note the following: unless a change of status has been approved by the Graduate Program Director and the Dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies, students must remain in the category of registration to which they are admitted.

If you have any further queries, contact FGS Student Affairs Office at 416 736 5521.

Posted May 28

RE: FGS Summer 2009 Convocation

Important, please note (June 2009 Convocation)

The online RSVP to a ceremony for the June 2009 convocation in not yet active, the online rsvp system (which includes robe ordering) will be activated approximately 4-6 weeks prior to the ceremony. Students who wish to to attend the ceremony will be required to rsvp their attendance and order guest tickets.

Convocation Date:
Summer 2009 - June 24 - 30th, 2009

For more information on Convocation, please visit the convocation website:

Monday, May 18, 2009

Calculus is not the solution to all our problems?

I missed an article in January's AMS Notices titled "Is the Sky Still Falling?" The author takes a close look at the number of incoming mathematics and engineering students to universities. A followup letter was published in the April 2009 issue of the AMS Notices titled "Why the Sky is Still Falling" that was written by our very own Walter Whiteley along with Peter Taylor (Queen's University) and Ed Barbeau (University of Toronto).

Let me give a list of pointers to the buzz on the blogs:
Math Forum: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Ars Mathematica

The Math Underground


Matthew Leingang

Rational Mathematics Education

A followup article on MAA

My two cents: I will agree that calculus isn't for everyone and I would agree that there should be at least a couple of math paths for university bound students.

However, if one advances far enough along in mathematics, calculus becomes a fundamental tool that cannot be ignored. As a university math teacher I assume calculus as a tool which is as basic as logarithms and exponentiation (e.g. basic concepts of calculus come up regularly in just about all the courses I have been teaching: cryptography, gambling, computer graphics, combinatorics and number theory...subjects where one would not expect to need calculus at first glance).

I would not rush to force high school students through calculus in order to encourage them to do well at university. Too many learned little or nothing from an inadequate calculus education and need to retake it when they get to university anyway.

When I was in high school I found calculus to be absolutely fascinating and loved learning it. I don't think that it can be completely dismissed as a university preparation course because for some people it works well. I remember in 11th grade my "Functions" teacher answered a question that I had asked by writing down the formula for the area of an ellipse by integrating the equation for the curve a year before I would learn what differentiation and integration were about. For some reason that memory became a vivid example of the exceptional education I was exposed to (thanks Mrs. Keim!).

Moving away from calculus being a capstone course for college preparation is going to require much better preparation of our teachers. They will need exposure to a broad range of mathematics if they are going to be able to convey to students the applications and importance of mathematics (e.g. see the topic list for the advanced mathematics course discussed in one of the blogs).

Friday, May 8, 2009

Access to courses mounted by education

Certain of the courses that are in the M.A. for Teachers program are offered by the Eduction department (those which are not exclusively mathematics courses). The three on the list include: MATH 5840 3.0: Mathematics Learning Environments, MATH 5900 3.0: Thinking about Teaching Mathematics, and MATH 5910 3.0: Quantitative Research Methods.

We are finding that students in the M.A. in Mathematics for Teachers program do not have priority or sometimes access to enroll in these courses. This happened this past Fall/Winter where we had limited spaces in Margaret Sinclair's classes and now it is happening this summer.

I just checked the enrollment for the course EDUC 5210 3.00/MATH 5910 3.0 and there are currently 19 enrolled. None of those students seem to be from our program. When I discussed upcoming courses with the graduate program director in education earlier this year she failed to mention the upcoming MATH 5910 3.0 course and I wonder if she intentionally left it off the list.

At least one of our students said he tried to enroll and somehow he was blocked from enrolling (although Primrose checked and could not find a reason for this block).

It is likely that for the Fall courses that the graduate program director for mathematics and I will secure from the education department some limited space in the courses that the education department is planning to offer. To determine priority in those limited spaces we will ask students to write a rationale for wanting to take the course and give priority to the students who have taken the most number of credits.

I have listed in another blog entry the expected course offerings for the Fall term.

Update: I sent an email on April 28 to the grad program director for education asking if there would be enrollment for Math students and she responded: "Yes, there should be space. For the CAS filters I have allowed some space. Not sure of RO has saved the spaces. There is still space for 3 atudents." I don't know what "CAS filters" and "RO" are but it seems like we should be able to get some students in this class.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

All the math news that fit to digitize

There is a really good meta-math blog that I have been using as the source for some of the articles that I have posted here.

I want to acknowledge it because it has links to all types of math articles, from those that appear in major news sources (NYT, Scientific American, Google News) to blogs on a variety of math topics such as puzzles, math education, general interest and related branches of science.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The origin of math phobias

I had a discussion with someone this past weekend. She said that she has this dream about math. She is in a exam for which she has not studied and is not prepared.

I know that she is not alone in associating math with exams and anxiety and not doing well. Discussions like this are rather uncomfortable for me because I often feel as though I am math's only advocate in a room full of animosity towards a maligned subject and the direction of a conversation often takes a tack where I say something equivalent to "its good to know more math" and then we have awkward silence and we change the topic.

I decided to pursue the conversation anyway and asked an obvious question "why is math different than other subjects in causing anxiety? Why do students fear this subject more than others?" She said something that I think may get to the heart of the matter. With math, students are split into different streams and more or less subtly labeling them as "smart" and "not smart." In grade school, there isn't "English for the smart kids" and "regular English"....there is essentially just "English" and everybody takes it.

I will pose this question: is it a good idea to "stream" math students when it causes a lifetime of anxiety? Can we teach the students who are faster and study more without subtly labeling other people as dumb? Thoughts?