Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Visiting Grinnell and grand challenges

I'm visiting Grinnell, Iowa, where my father grew up, and where my father, aunts and uncles, and many cousins attended college. Grinnell, a small college town with a lovely campus, is quiet and steamy in the summer. In the evening the cicadas are loud, and the last of the fireflies spark in the dusk. I'm staying in The Carriage House, a charming bed-and-breakfast on the English model.

I came for a summit of math and science teacher educators held by IMSEP, the Iowa Math and Science Education Partnership. I gave the opening address, entitled "Grand Challenges and Inspiration: Lighting the Fire in the Next Generation." In the speech, I argued that all our arguments about the need for more math and science education to preserve American competitiveness fail to inspire young people. I suggested that instead of haranguing them, we need to tap into their idealism and their desire to contribute as active agents in making a better world.

The National Academy of Engineering has articulated fourteen grand challenges (http://www.engineeringchallenges.org/) for the coming generation to meet, ranging from making solar energy economical to reverse engineering the brain and preventing nuclear terror. Not all of these are easily adaptable to the K-12 classroom, but some are--and probably more of them than I think.

I believe IMSEP will post the talk, and when they do I'll post a link to it.

I also ran a small breakout session asking whether it's feasible to mix math and literature at the middle school. The texts we looked at were Flatland, The Phantom Tollbooth, and my own upcoming book, Lost in Lexicon (See htttp://www.lostinlexicon.com). We discussed how Flatland investigates perspective, prejudice, and a limited viewpoint from both a social and mathematical perspective. We examined how an incorrect problem in The Phantom Tollbooth underlines the difference between reading a story and reading mathematics. Finally, I highlighted several examples from Lost in Lexicon of how mathematics and language intersect, as in a discussion of logic and irrationality, along with some interesting mathematical extensions in number systems, simple algebra, and plane geometry.

The session was an experiment for me, exploring how the mathematics of these books can be accessed at different levels of mathematical sophistication. It went well enough that I think I'll try to write up the talk to publish on my website or elsewhere.

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