Monday, January 11, 2010

Reality Checks

:: math meetups ::

At the checkout lane in People's Food Coop this evening, I came across The Big Ideas of 2010, the latest issue of Adbusters. The centerfold or double page spread towards the center, was all about mechanized bombing with "game changing" drones, as controlled from Nevada or other cubicles. The verbiage about the weapons seemed mindless and laudatory, the familiar cruel hype. The message of the spread seemed to be that war by these means might be continued indefinitely, if for no other reason than doing something else might be considered defeatist.

I was disturbed by this nightmarish article, especially because of its context. Here we were in a mostly organic, progressive, worker owned food coop, the kind of institution Portland prides itself in supporting. Why would the magazine rack include such psychopathic propaganda? Was our world imploding this quickly?

Lindsey was stocking up on supplies (grains, beans, onions, carrots), some of which will stay at Harrison Street, some of which might go to Duke's, where she's planning to get her food handler's license and whip up a southern vegan meal during the next "private undercover party" (one of our Ignite-like events). She didn't see the article but thought it might be tongue-in-cheek, a spoof. I wasn't so sure, was feeling disoriented.

At about this time, the Clerk of Oversight phoned me, aware that I was slogging through hell in some way. I'd been at the two hour committee meeting that afternoon, left a little early when Tara texted, saying she might be coming down with something. I ferried her home from a friend's on SE Clatsop. She'd been using the bus both ways, as I'm working to conserve fuel, and promote teen independence (as a high schooler, her student ID also counts as a bus pass). She's seeming better this morning, off to school on the bus again.

I'm hoping to get together with Friends and give more of a sense of my picture over here. Just keeping these journals is not the complete practice. We have clearness committees and stuff like that.

I've been in touch with Gary Litvins about Mathematics for The Digital Age and have an OSCON proposal in draft form wherein that book gets mentioned towards the end of the abstract. Here's what I've written:
Oregon teachers have plans to start field testing a new kind of mathematics course in 2010 that would count towards fulfilling the legally mandated three year minimum mathematics requirement for a high school diploma. Learn how the Python community has been supporting these efforts and how the open source community more generally is becoming involved.

Other developments such as poster sessions at Pycons, an upgraded turtle graphics library, new on-line resources and published titles, suggest future trends in education.

The appearance of Mathematics for the Digital Age and Programming in Python, by Maria and Gary Litvin may signal a sea change in high school level mathematics teaching, or perhaps it simply represents a confluence and positive synergy of many long term trends, including the bias towards teaching more discrete math topics at the high school level.
From a math teaching perspective, I think the Litvins text is a breakthrough. Students use it at Phillips Academy in Andover, considered one of the nation's top schools. I've been going on Math Forum asking for advice from my peers: if we wanted to spread a course more like this around Oregon, how would we do it?

The solution that seemed to be shaping up last August was to simply fire up the new course under the heading of discrete and/or digital math, per state standards. There's already a section in the standards for such material.

However the real question is where to find the teachers, when to equip them with the few additional skills needed to take some well-known and conservative content, and make it ready for the digital age. In the case of the Litvins text, that means learning some Python.

Would we field a small army of Python trainers then? That seems like a possible strategy, should funding become available. Or perhaps these teachers are simply learning Python on their own? Having been a high school teacher, I know there's a lot of pressure just to keep up with the existing schedule. Preparing to teach something new would mean time away from other duties and teachers on the front lines may not have that luxury, absent some institutional work flow.

I may be too out of the loop on this one. Should someone else give this talk then? Maybe this blog post will garner some feedback.

Exercise 8 in Chapter 10 (2nd edition) gets into V + F = E + 2, Euler's Law for Polyhedra. That's the kind of stuff I get into through my Oregon Curriculum Network web site, also very vested in Python. I've tended to use VPython, a 3rd party library, for my Saturday Academy classes, which makes it relatively easy to get colorful polyhedra on screen. I haven't done much with PyMol yet, another add-on our chemistry teachers might enjoy.

Having since checked that Adbusters web site, I think Lindsey is correct that I was reading a spoof. More like The Onion then? On the other hand, it just seemed too real. These drones are much worse than V-2s, plus are used against people with no air defenses to begin with (no RAF). Calling these remotely piloted know-nothing drones "weapons against blow back" is simply ridiculous, but then I could hear some faux counter-terrorism expert saying just such a thing, perhaps over a secure phone from some ski trip somewhere. Are these the same anonymous faux experts who disbelieve the NIE, think we should be bombing civilian power plants in Iran? Who put them in charge?

Once home, I focused on filling out an application form for a part time tutoring job. I wrote to Stu Quimby on Facebook, asking if I could use him as a reference. My work on a geometry toy is more relevant to math students than some of that database work for the outcomes research people at Providence Health System.

Getting a digital age math course option out to students will require innovation at the institutional level, the design of new roles, new work flows. As an army of one, all I might do is point in that positive direction and suggest this might be our ticket to a brighter tomorrow. I am quite aware that the Obama administration wants to get the focus back on education and jobs, not to mention health care. We might well have a bigger army here soon. On the other hand, innovation is a difficult process taking skilled managers. ONAMI was an inspiring, showed me that Oregonians still have that pioneering spirit.

Education in the digital age means using more viewers like Google Earth and Microsoft TerraServer. The news shows are already using those. TV has already improved in that sense.

My thanks to Carey Carlson for sending some philosophy PDFs, somewhat in the Russell-Whitehead lineage. Also thank you Tom Higgins for pointing me to Roger Ebert's blog. My prayers for John and Eve Talmadge, cousin Mary, Grace, cousing Pat and her mom.

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