Friday, October 17, 2014

MAA Books Beat: Stories at the Heart of Teaching

Written by Steve Kennedy, MAA Acquisitions Editor, Stories at the Heart of Teaching appears in the October/November 2014 issue of MAA FOCUS.

Steve Willoughby taught mathematics for 59 years at every level from elementary school to graduate school. He is a keen and perceptive observer and a witty and talented storyteller. And, man, after 59 years does he have some stories to tell in Textbooks, Testing, Training: How We Discourage Thinking. 

From a fourth-grade book on a page titled “Divided By 6”:

Twelve turkeys. Six turkeys in each cage. How many cages?

There was a picture on the page with the right number of cages so that exactly six turkeys could be, and were, placed into each with no leftover turkeys. The teachers’ guide directed that any student who wrote the answer without writing “12 ÷ 6 = 2” was to be marked wrong. Fortunately, because of the title at the top of the page and four years of intensive schooling, no child would have an urge to read the problem. There are two numbers. One is 6. Certainly 12 must be divided by 6 and the problem is solved to the satisfaction of all concerned without a single thought passing through the head of anyone involved or of any child making the heinous error of counting the cages depicted.

Did the authors really suppose that if somebody wanted to know how many cages there were, he would count the turkeys, count how many are in each cage, and, upon discovering the unlikely fact that the same number were in each cage, would divide the first number by the second?

Friday, October 3, 2014

Tom Sinclair Reviews Textbooks, Testing, Training: How We Discourage Thinking

Tom Sinclair reviewed Textbook, Testing, Training: How we Discourage Thinking by Stephen S. Willoughby as part of MAA Reviews.

"This short book recounts many specific true stories from my fifty-nine years of teaching that I believe cast some light on what is wrong with American education and perhaps some clues as to what might improve it." (p. 1)

This is an incisive yet readable critique of the American education system. Willoughby writes from the perspective of six decades of experience. He knows that the best way to persuade someone is to tell them a story. The author illustrates his points with anecdotes from his own experience and those of his colleagues.

Two things surprised me about this book. First, Willoughby's writing captures the teaching experience to perfection. I often found myself nodding with familiarity as I read. The second surprise is the humor. Willoughby writes with a dry, ironic sensibility that remains warm and inviting. Even when describing his frustrations he never descends into cynicism.

Willoughby breaks down the problem with our education system into three broad categories. Doing education right is a complex problem with a complex solution. He presents ways that we teachers can be part of that solution.

Read the full review here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

New: Knots and Borromean Rings, Rep-Tiles, and Eight Queens

Knots and Borromean Rings, Rep-Tiles, and Eight Queens
Knots and Borromean Rings, Rep-Tiles, and Eight Queens
Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner's fifteen volumes about Mathematical Games are The Canon – timeless classics that are always worth reading and rereading. —Don Knuth

I recommend you approach this book on a Sunday afternoon with paper and pen a few biscuits for brain-power and a good hour to spare for puzzling. It is worth it. —Charlotte Mulcare, +plus Magazine

The hangman’s paradox, cat’s cradle, gambling, peg solitaire, pi and e—all these and more are back in Martin Gardner’s inimitable style, with updates on new developments and discoveries. Read about how knots and molecules are related; take a trip into the fourth dimension; try out new dissections of stars, crosses, and polygons; and challenge yourself with new twists on classic games.

This volume includes updates by Martin Gardner, Peter Renz, Greg Frederickson, and Erica Flapan. New illustrations have been included and replace some of the older illustrations. The references have been updated.

Friday, September 5, 2014

MAA Top Selling Books

Check out this year's top 15 bestsellers.

1. 101 Careers in Mathematics, 3rd Ed
Andrew Sterrett, Editor

2. Math through the Ages
William Berlinghoff and Fernando GouvĂȘa

3. Game Theory and Strategy
Philip D. Straffin, Jr.

4. Mathematical Interest Theory
Leslie Jane Federer Vaaler & James Daniel

5. New Horizons in Geometry
Tom M. Apostol and Mamikon A. Mnatsakanian

6. Learning Modern Algebra
Al Cuoco and Joseph Rotman

7. Number Theory through Inquiry
David C. Marshall, Edward Odell, & Michael Starbird

8. Geometry Revisited
H.S.M. Coxeter & S.L. Greitzer

9. Exploring Advanced Euclidean Geometry with GeoGebra
Gerard Venema

10. First Steps for Math Olympians
J. Douglas Faires

11. Mathematics for Secondary School Teachers
Elizabeth George Bremigan, Ralph Bremigan, and John Lorch

12. Beyond the Quadratic Formula
Ron Irving

13. Combinatorics:
A Guided Tour

David R. Mazur

14. Ordinary Differential Equations: From Calculus to Dynamical Systems
Virginia W. Noonburg

15. Functions, Data, and Models
Sheldon P. Gordon and Florence S. Gordon

Friday, August 15, 2014

MAA Books Beat: Teaching Isn't the Only Job for Math Majors

Written by Steve Kennedy, MAA Books Beat is a column written for MAA FOCUSTeaching Isn't the Only Job for Math Majors appears in the August/September issue.

Teaching Isn’t the Only Job for Math Majors

“What would I do with a math degree? I don’t want to teach.” That anyone would ask this question has flummoxed me for years. When I was younger I was tempted (and sometimes succumbed to the temptation) to explain that one does not study mathematics for its possible future income potential. One studies mathematics because it is mankind’s only portal to absolute truth. Science deals in, as its best, approximations to truth; the humanities in speculation; the arts obscure as much as they reveal. Mathematics, using just the power of your mid, reveals eternal, and external to us, absolute truth.

I’m older now, and hopefully wiser, and not only do I see the value in what science, humanities, and the arts illuminate, but also, I see the legitimacy of the question itself. I too can now talk about the many interesting careers my former students have taken up: Nutty Steph, who started a granola company; Kate, who became a dog-musher leading winter tours of northern Minnesota; Liz, who was Stephen Wolfram’s personal assistant. Unfortunately, as the examples illustrate, I tend to remember the unusual and offbeat options.

Details about “Best Job”

CareerCast recently listed “mathematician” as the Best Job of 2014 (university professor, statistician, and actuary round out the top four). This made a nice blurb in our department newsletter, but they didn’t provide an awful lot of detail about what kind of jobs these folks are looking at. Fortunately, we have Andy Sterrett. Andy has been tracking down mathematics graduates with interesting careers and compiling their stories in 101 Careers in Mathematics for more than a decade. The third edition is just out. I’ll give some highlights to share with your students wondering what to do with a math degree.

Alysia Appell has degrees from Grand Valley State University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is in charge of the pilot-staffing model for Northwest/Delta Airlines; that means she needs to forecast the airline’s future needs to hire pilots and plan how to cover all flights given predicted vacations and illnesses of current flight staff.

Joel Schneider has degrees from Franklin and Marshall, Washington State, and the University of Oregon. He was the content director for Square One TV, a children’s TV show that aired in the 1990s. Square One has echoes of Sesame Street but was focused on mathematics. My personal favorite bit was “Mathnet,” a Dragnet parody that featured a detective named Monday who was interested in just the facts as she solved mathematical mysteries. Schneider is still in TV, now producing a mathematical game show called Risky Numbers.

Kay Strain King has degrees from Vanderbilt, Makerere (Uganda), and Texas A&M universities. She is a senior environmental mathematician for Theta Engineering. She does mathematical consulting on environmental problems. In her article in 101 Careers, she describes a project to model gas release from a bermed storage tank under various weather conditions.

I bought a copy of 101 Careers to put in our department’s student reading nook. I’m thinking I should buy another copy for my desk. If you teach and advise undergraduates and sometimes find yourself confronting the question with which I opened this column, you should buy one as well.

(By the way, we have already started collecting material for the next edition of 101 Careers. If you are, or know, someone with an interesting mathematical career, please contact Deanna Haunsperger at