Use Mathematics for the Social Good?

February 23, 2017

I am going to keep this short today: I am really excited about Moon Duchin’s plan to create an army of expert witness mathematicians for gerrymandering cases. This is going to be a summer class at Tufts, with other courses planned for Wisconsin, North Carolina, Texas, and San Francisco. I am really interested in doing this, but I want to educate myself more on gerrymandering first.

How many other such volunteer groups are there? I can think of:Statistics without Borders. I thought there was a similar one for “Operations Research without Borders,” but I can’t find anything on it.

Can anyone think of other organizations?

Inquiry-Oriented Instruction

February 15, 2017

I was part of a grant last semester to implement a set of teaching materials that has been refined over the last decade. The materials use a teaching method called inquiry-oriented instruction, which I would say is a subset of inquiry-based learning (IBL). I used these materials in my abstract algebra class, although there are materials for both linear algebra and differential equations, too.

A very brief description is “intuition comes before definitions.” The materials introduce quotient groups by discussing Even and Odd integers, which students could easily see is a group at that point (using rules like “Even + Odd = Odd”). Once they got familiar with the idea that we could have sets of elements make up a group, we slowly backed our way into the definition of coset. It was pretty impressive to see students very naturally come up with definitions—having the right prompts helped a lot.

As part of the grant, I went to training at North Carolina State to use the materials. I also had funds to have student video my class, which will be used to analyze how well instructors who were not involved with the development of these materials can implement them.

We also used the class video as part of a weekly online working group. The purpose of this group was to prepare us, both in terms of pedagogy and course materials (not everyone was an algebraist), to teach the class. We discussed the purposes of the prompts, talked about what was going well and poorly, and watched video of each others’ classes. I found this immensely helpful.

I would use these materials again (in fact, I am planning on using the linear algebra materials next year). My sense is that my students had an abnormally good grasp of the definitions; previous students have struggled to understand what a coset means, for instance. My focus for the next time I use the abstract algebra materials is to work harder on the technical proofs—I think that my students did better on writing proofs than the previous time I taught the course, but not by a lot. Still, I think that the gains in intuition were worth it.

Links to the abstract algebra, linear algebra, and differential equation materials can be found here in the middle of the page.

Unschoolers’ Math Circle

February 8, 2017

Last week, I told you about a Math Circle for Teachers my colleagues and I created. I simultaneously created a math circle for a variety of homeschooled kids known as “unschoolers;” this math circle is really just a math circle that I created for my kids.

My kids are 5- and 7-years old, and finding appropriate problems for them is more difficult for me than for the teachers. Fortunately, Zhvokin and Rozhkovskaya have written great books from which to steals problems. I also supplement them with activities from Christopher Danielson, as well as activities I used with my mathematics for elementary education majors (made age-appropriate).

I have had a good turnout so far. We have been meeting monthly for 1.5 years now, and I usually get 7–12 students per session (we usually do two groups of 5ish, since I am not the best at “classroom management”). We use a room at the public library.

This is has been a lot of fun, and it has been remarkably easy to set up (though my wife, who is much more socially connected than I am, rounded up the kids who are not related to me). It is also an interesting task for me to think about what mathematical ideas are important for 6-year olds to know, and then to design a lesson that gets at it that is fun and educational.

Teachers’ Math Circle

February 1, 2017

I started a Math Circle for K-12 teachers last year with three of my colleagues. Roughly, a Math Circle is just a place where people get together and work on interesting math problems. So far, it has been a wonderful experience. I got to fly to Denver to get some training, and we have had a great time putting it together.

We have started off by focusing on 6–12 teachers, and we have had only a tiny bit of success. We have seen a total of four different teachers, with two of the teachers being dedicated regulars (and a third possibly joining them now). This could be a little weird, with a 2-to-1 professor-to-teacher ratio, but it has not been. The sessions have been a lot of fun, and the actual dynamic is that one of the professors leads the session and everyone else acts as a student (and the leader of the session is often a student, too, since s/he also often has not thought too deeply about the problems). We have been meeting 3–4 times per year.

Our budget so far has been $0, although we have tried to get several grants. The National Association of Math Circles has been supportive, though, even sending us a Math Circle starter pack. We hope to get some money to provide dinners for the teachers eventually. We are able to offer them “continuing education” credits, which helps them renew their teaching licenses (these don’t cost us anything; we just get a little help from the chair of our Education Department, who needs to sign them).

The Math Circle has been a fun and interesting experience with a shockingly low start-up cost and time investment. Let me know if you have questions about starting one.

Reporting Grades in SBG

January 25, 2017

I mostly have liked the course management software I have used (Moodle and Canvas), but both are pretty terrible when it comes to keeping track of grades in an Standards-Based Grading system. I have mostly kept the my grades in a spreadsheet, which does all of the calculations that I want it to, but the students then do not have access to their grades. I tried using Canvas to report grades in Spring 2016 and Fall 2016, but Canvas will not do the calculations I need it to (I just posted the raw scores to Canvas, and I gave the students the logic to figure it out); I had to keep a separate spreadsheet to do everything I needed.

Neither of these made me happy, because I want my students to have access to their grades (if only to check for mistakes I have made), but I also want a single place to put my grades. My solution was inspired by Drew Lewis, who created a PERL script to send his students email updates of their grades directly off his spreadsheet. If I were more computer-savvy, this probably should have been an obvious solution, but I am very grateful that Drew pointed out what I could not recognize on my own.

I am more familiar with Python, so I wrote my own script (included below). Once I have the code written, I go to a command line (I use Linux), type “crontab -e” to edit my crontab, and type (without the quotation marks) “14 3 * * 2 /usr/bin/python 118-S17/Grades/” to send an email at 3:14 am (the 14 3) every Tuesday morning (the “2” in “14 3 * * 2”). The “/usr/bin/python” says to run the program “python” and input the file “118-S17/Grades/”

Below is the code. It seems to work, but there is one issue that I am ironing out: I am only allowed to send five emails at a time when I tested it. I am pretty sure that this is a limitation on the server’s end, since I am sending the messages to only a couple of email addresses (all mine for the test runs). My (ugly) hack, which worked on Tuesday, is that I broke up my code so that each program only emails 5 students. I welcome troubleshooting ideas from those who know about this stuff, although I suspect that I could just try the single program and it would work, since I am not actually going to email to the same email address more than once for my class.

Here is the code. Note that indentation matters A LOT in Python, so be careful if you cut-and-paste.

import openpyxl
import smtplib
import email
import time

#This gets the spreadsheet the grades are in.

#Here I am getting each 'sheet' of the spreadsheet.

#I put my password in my spreadsheet, since that is supposed to be more secret than this code is.  I put it in Cell AA1 of the "Roster" sheet, and this gets it out.

#I am logging into my email server here.

#I want to put the date in the email, so I am getting it here.

#The From email address and Subject of the email will be the same for every student; I put today's date in the Subject for the students' convenience.
subject="Math 118: Grade Update for "+todaysDate

#Put the last row you want to check prior to the +1  

#Put the rows you do not want to check (because they are blank or because the student dropped) in the list below.

#I have to hardcode the range, and I skip rows 28 and 29 because they do not contain student data.
#The commented out for loop is just to test so that I am not flooded with emails.
for rowVar in range(2,NUMBEROFROWS):
	&nbsp#This just skips the blank rows that I hard-coded into the exceptions.	
	if rowVar in EXCEPTIONS:
	#This gets the student's first name and email, and I print the first name so that I can see who received an email (I get an email update once this program runs).
	firstName=rosterSheet.cell(row=rowVar, column=3).value
	print firstName
	toEmail=rosterSheet.cell(row=rowVar, column=4).value
	#I am going to put together the body of the message in several steps, storing it in the 'text' variable each time.  This is just the saluation of the email.
	text="Dear %s,\n\nBelow is your weekly grade update for %s.  If the semester ended today, you would receive a grade of %s.  Of course, I fully expect your grade to go up, since the semester is not yet over."   % (firstName,todaysDate,todaysGrade)
	#Here I am getting the summaries of their grade components and putting it in the text.		
	text+="\n\nBelow are your current letter grades for each of the components of your semester grade.  Your grade is determined by the lowest of these, so you should focus on the component with the lowest grade; see the syllabus for more details.\n\nQuiz Grade: %s \nGateways Grade: %s\nTeam Project Grade: %s\nIndividual Project Grade: %s\nSelf-Regulated Learning Reflections Grade: %s\n\n" % (quizGrade,gatewaysGrade,teamProjectGrade,individualProjectGrade,SRLGrade)

	#Here I am giving them the next two things they should be studying to improve their grade; the logic in the spreadsheet figures this out.	
	text+="The two Learning Outcomes you should focus on next are %s and %s.  At the bottom of this email is a list of the number of times you have demonstrated each of the Learning Outcomes.  Please check this over to see that it is correct, and be sure to email me if you find a mistake.\n\nHave a great day!\nBret\n\n\n" % (firstMissingQuiz,secondMissingQuiz)

 	#Next, I am just going to loop over the raw data for each Standard and print it out at the end of the email.  This is so they can check to make sure that their records agree with mine.	
	#Put the number of the column corresponding to your last learning outcome prior to the +1
	#Again, I am hardcoding the column range for my spreadsheet.	
	for columnVar in range(2,NUMBEROFCOLUMNS):
		text+="%s:  %s\n" % (labelCode,numberOfMarks)	

        #Here I just format the final message, addding a subject header to my 'text' variable.  Then I send the email.	
	message='Subject: %s\n\n%s' % (subject,text)	

#I log out of the email server.

My return

January 18, 2017

This is a quick post to announce that I intend to start blogging again. After several years of being really good, I overcommitted to things last week. I also overcommitted to things this semester, but I am trying to build several things into my schedule anyway.

Here are the ways that I am overcommitting.

  1. My school is completely re-doing our general education program. I have been third-in-command of the effort, and that took enormous amounts of time last semester. This work will continue this semester, but I think it will be less work.
  2. I am assistant direct of our honors program this semester. Our goal is to consider re-shaping Honors according to what they learned from program review.
  3. I am in charge of program review for the Department of Mathematics this semester.

I will write more about this in coming weeks.

More Social Media (for now)

May 4, 2016

The end of the semester is here, and my thoughts are turning to planning next year’s courses. This means that I will likely be on social media a bit more for the planning phase. The feedback is invaluable, I love hearing other people’s ideas, and I miss you all!

That said, the norm for me is now going to be “no social media.” It was really nice to not have to cede a small portion of my brain to wondering about it, checking it, and wondering when it is going to get its next hit of dopamine. I think the on-going plan will be to be on social media (really, Google Plus) for May and part of June, and off for the rest of the year.

Deep Work: Imperfection

February 25, 2016

This is another part of the series on Cal Newport’s Deep Work idea (and this one, this one,  and this one).  I have been swamped the last couple of weeks with meetings and grading.

This week was particularly busy.  In addition to 11 hours worth of meetings, I had a total of 120 student screencasts to grade.  I have been very good about not working at home, but I broke down and graded about 60 of the videos on Tuesday night after the rest of my family went to sleep.  I am glad I did, although I am a little disappointed that I broke the separation of work and home.

This led me to wonder how sustainable Deep Work is.  There comes several points in every semester where things get really busy.  However, I really think that it actually is sustainable.   Things are abnormally busy for me this semester because I am teaching an extra class and on a committee to basically re-do our general education program (and I am very involved in this committee—I do more than just show up for meetings).  In spite of this unusual level of busyness, I have only had to work from home once this semester, and the semester is already halfway done.  Moreover, I have had the following number of hours of Deep Work for each week of the semester:  9.5, 7, 6.5, 8.5, 4.5, 2.5 (this week will be between 2 and 4).  So the last few weeks have been down, but they are still above what I was doing for the last several years—and this is particularly busy semester.  I think that I will be able to continue doing 6–9 hours per week in future semesters.

Deep Work:

February 11, 2016

This is another part of the series on Cal Newport’s Deep Work idea (and this one and this one).   I wanted to reduce distractions, and email is a pretty big distraction to me.  The first thing I did to reduce the amount of email I read is to raise the requirements for me to even open and email.  I now immediately delete much more email if I am sure that it is not interesting to me.

The second thing I did was to finally switch to to book my office hours.  For the last eight years or so, I have not had scheduled office hours.  I did this because I wanted to retain flexibility for scheduling other things (research groups, service, etc).   I had students email me with their schedule, and then I would find a time that works for both of us.  This wasn’t too tough, but it took time (I also hated this scheduling, so it just makes me happier to eliminate this bit of scheduling from my life).

My new plan retains most of the flexibility, makes me more accessible to students (I think), eliminates me having to do the little bit of scheduling that I don’t want to do, and cuts down on email time.  Each Friday, I schedule for the next week roughly one hour worth of office hours each day at a time that is convenient to me.  I run this through, and students can access this website through our course management system to sign up for office hours.

If no student has signed up for a time slot during the office hours, I can simply change the office hours to accommodate my schedule as I see fit.  If a student has signed up, then I simply schedule around the student.

Additionally, I delete all unclaimed office hours for the day each morning.  That way, I don’t have to worry about continually checking my computer to see if anyone has signed up; the students who are signed up by the morning are scheduled, and there will be no new ones for the day.

Deep Work: Broken Internet Addiction

February 9, 2016

This is a continuation of my thoughts on Cal Newport’s Deep Work idea (and this one).  One unexpected consequence is that I have no internet addiction anymore (I used to have the normal amount, rather than some sort of unusual obsession).  I have been clean for forty days now.

I think it is fair to say that Newport is anti-social media (see here, here, here, here, and others).  I don’t share that idea, but I have been trying to cut back on social media recently.  I was starting to slip with Facebook and Twitter last fall, mostly due to a couple of ongoing Scrabble games on Facebook and missing some of the people I only know on Twitter.  This semester, I decided to make a clean break.  I no longer check even Google Plus.  The only thing I allow myself to check is my RSS feed full of blogs, which I intend to continue checking.

Here is what happened:  I am no longer distracted by this.  I am completely—COMPLETELY—out of the habit of going to the computer to just check, say, Google Plus.  That portion of my brain has been completely freed up.

Combining this with the fact that I almost never use the computer at home means that my recreational computer time is close to zero.  This has had several consequences.

Good consequences:  I am more productive at work, and I stick with problems longer (Deep Work!).  I am more attentive to my kids at home.  I am reading more books at home (rather than reading page one million of the worst book ever on the iPad), and I get more sleep.

Bad consequences:  I used to pride myself on being aware of the news and pop culture.  I am no longer in the loop.  I almost forgot that the Superbowl was on Sunday (I wasn’t planning on watching it, and didn’t.  I watched The Incredibles with my kids instead).  In fact, I wouldn’t have known who won the Superbowl until today had I not heard how “Superbowl winner Peyton Manning” had plugged Budweiser on NPR Marketplace on the drive to work on Monday (I do get some information from NPR and some podcasts).

On balance, I am very happy with how things are going with this.  I like not being a slave to the iPad at home, and I like getting more done at work.  If I want to be more in the loop, I can schedule a weekly scan of news and pop culture (although I am not planning on it at this time).