Can liberal arts majors learn to love math — or not hate it so much? In The Atlantic, Jessica Lahey looks at a new curriculum called Discovering the Art of Mathematics: Mathematical Inquiry in the Liberal Arts (DAoM).
The goal is “to nurture healthy and informed perceptions of mathematics, mathematical ways of thinking, and the ongoing impact of mathematics not only on STEM fields but also on the liberal arts and humanities.”
Steven Strogatz, a Cornell professor of applied math, is trying it in a math class for non-majors.
Using an exercise from the DAoM book Games and Puzzles, Strogatz asked his students to figure out how to fold a piece of paper in such a way that they could then cut one straight line with scissors to create a scalene triangle (a triangle in which all three sides are different lengths). After working for a half an hour, only one student in the class was able to do it.
At the end of class, Strogatz asked the students if they wanted a hint, but they didn’t want any help.
“They were having a true mathematical moment,” he wrote Lahey in an e-mail. “They were feeling what anyone who loves math feels, the pleasure of thinking, the pleasure of wrestling with a problem that fascinates.” Students kept working on the problem on their own. “Over the weekend I started to get emails from some of them, expressing the excitement they felt when they solved it.”
Inquiry-based learning can’t do it all, Strogatz told Lahey.
“I want my students to memorize and know basic facts, and I want them to understand what those facts mean, why they’re important, where they come up in the real world. I want it all and I think students want it all too.” He added:
If we only teach conceptual approaches to math without developing skill at actually solving math problems, students will feel weak. Their mathematical powers will be flimsy. And if they don’t memorize anything, if they don’t know the basic facts of addition and multiplication or, later, geometry or still later, calculus, it becomes impossible for them to be creative. It’s like in music. You need to have technique before you can create a composition of your own. But if all we do is teach technique, no one will want to play music at all.
Strogatz and DAoM creator Julian Fleron want students to “make math,” not just discuss it, writes Lahey.
My math-y husband loves doing geometric puzzles like the paper-folding exercise. I find this sort of thing frustrating and boring.