Web 2.0 experiences in the classroom

January 16, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Posted in conference, education, internet, internet culture, local, math, technology | 3 Comments
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I just got back from TLT Day, Teaching and Learning with Technology Day 2009. I attended a great presentation by Marianne Hebert on Web 2.0 in the classroom. It was a great presentation that I was rather disappointed with.

The presentation slides are here on slideshare. (I learned about slideshare from Marianne’s talk … thanks!) See, that’s why I say it was a great presentation. I learned some new stuff that I want to look into and, via the discussion, found ways other folks are using Web 2.0 stuff. I even learned what the heck Web 2.0 means.

The reason I was rather disappointed with it is that I didn’t leave with ways to improve the classroom/course experience for my students. Sure, I know about various web stuff that’s really cool, and I could incorporate these things if I wanted to, but it’s not clear at all if using these things (like delicious, facebook, twitter, google maps, google docs, etc.) will improve my classroom/course experience. This left me conflicted, since I thought it was a good talk.

And that’s when it hit me. The talk basically said that people are on the web, our students are on the web more than we are, and here are lots of ways that we can interact with them to facilitate learning in ways with which they are comfortable. It gave lots of examples and demonstrated how many different websites are used. And it did a good job at that.

But that’s not what I need in order to improve my classroom/course experience. I’m not just going to use a piece of technology because it’s cool. (Ok, I might. But only if it’s REALLY cool.) And I’m not going to just throw more technology into my classes with the hope that the experience will be better. There’s no guarantee that it’s going to work.

What I need to do is spend some time alone and brainstorm. I need to just strip away all perceived boundaries, imagine that no impediments exist, and that I can make any classroom experience I can imagine a reality just by willing it to be. If that were the reality in which I lived, what classroom/course experience would I create? What sorts of things can I imagine?

That’s hard! I don’t know about you, but if I start doing that, part of my mind (call it the practical part) immediately starts thinking about all the problems with implementing what I just imagined. Now don’t get me wrong; I like the practical part of my mind. And I know it’s just looking at things that way with the intention of solving those problems. But it gets in the way of the creative part of my mind that imagines in the first place. And my creative part can get bummed out by a preponderance of practical concerns that I don’t know how to solve. So I need to take some time to give the creative part free reign, and imagine what I want to make happen.

Once I get an idea of what that looks like … well, then I will sit back and have a beer. A good beer, like Guinness. But after that, I will let the practical part out of its cage and say, “Make that happen!” In reality, it will probably only make a facsimile, or a lower dimensional projection, of my imagination happen, because it has to live in the real world. If it really can make my imagination happen, that’s a sign to me that I need to dream bigger.

So, my conclusion is that coming to a talk like this the way I did today is almost like putting the cart before the horse. I need to have that dream first. I need to imagine the ultimate classroom/course experience in a limitless world. Then I can come to a talk like this and when I see something useful I can say, “Hey, that can help make this little part of my ultimate experience a reality!” Then I won’t be just adding technology for its own sake. I will be filling a need, a function that I have already identified. Then whatever I add is practically assured to make a tangible improvement.

You’re indirectly responsible for this realization, Marianne, so thank you. You just may have helped me make every conference I go to more enriching. I also had good conversations with Linda, Karen, and Jenica. It was a few hours well spent IMO.

I also attended a workshop about iClicker, a classroom voting system that I will be using extensively this semester. I’ll devote a separate entry to just that.

Life update

October 21, 2008 at 8:58 am | Posted in conference, family, holidays, life, math | 1 Comment

Well, the semester is in full swing as you, dear reader, may have guessed by the infrequency of my entries alone.  But life doesn’t stop, that’s for sure.

Last weekend I took 10 students to the Fall 2008 MAA Seaway section meeting, a local math conference. The talks were very cool, and many students told me they had a great time. I was also the chair of the student program committee. Last meeting in the spring, there were only 2 submissions for the student talk session, so this time we decided to supplement student talks with other things, like math jeopardy and an ice cream social. We also had two faculty give an workshop for undergraduates on how to craft a math talk. Lots of good stuff for our students. Then we got 12 submissions for student talks! We had to get help to cover all of the rooms we needed to fit all of these activities! In the end, though, I think it was a success. And we have some ideas to make the arrangement of activities better next time.

Some family have been going through some pretty rough times, and there is nothing I can do about it. That’s weighing on me and making it hard to concentrate on anything. Life sucks sometimes.

This weekend we’re going to do some preparation for winter. We’re going to store the motorcycles, and put the trailer out of the garage and beside it, covered with a tarp. Then we’ll have the motorcycles winterized in one bay, and the car in the other. I should replace that broken window in the garage door, too.

Thanksgiving at our house is on, and we’re going to have folks over again. Hopefully we can avoid the plumbing disaster this time around.

Over Columbus day weekend Jenny and I visited some friends and relatives. The relatives were Martin, Uta, and Tanta Martha who were visiting from Germany. Tanta Martha knew me when I was a nipperkin. She nicknamed me “schlingel,” which loosely translates as “rascal,” a nickname that stuck to me with my Oma (Martha’s sister) all my life. This will probably be her last visit to the states, so I just had to make the trip. I made two different holiday liqueurs, whose recipes I learned from Oma, and brought them to share during this visit; they were a hit. I really improved the coffee liqueur this time. We also had a great visit with our dear friends Edz and Sacha. One of these years we’ll get them up here to chill with us in the north country.

Academic advising has begun. It’s almost hard to believe that it’s time to start thinking about next semester already. On the other hand, I’m already thinking about what I’m going to be teaching in the 2009-2010 academic year, so it shouldn’t be so hard to believe.

Time moves so fast. I should make some time to think long term about life and what I want out of it. I did that over 10 years ago when I was working as a waiter in a restaurant, and I set myself on this course, got back into school, and now I’m a mathematician and professor. But it’s about time for a long term view again. I’m not going to be switching careers or anything, but I need a better balance between work, home, family, etc. Jenny and I talked about that a bit on the car ride back from the visit with the german relatives. Putting it off to the “break” between the semesters doesn’t work. There is no better time than now.

Math research is cool.

August 1, 2008 at 1:45 pm | Posted in conference, life, math | 7 Comments

This summer of 2008, I took part in an REU, Research Experience for Undergraduates.  It’s the acronym that has stuck for a summer program where talented undergraduates work with a Mathematics professor on a research problem.  The Potsdam/Clarkson REU has been running for about 11 years now. This is my first time doing it. The professors here who are involved with it find it a good way to stay active in research in a school with such a high teaching load. (The current 24 credit per year teaching load is being reduced to 21 credits per year, with plans to further reduce it to 18. But recent changes in the state government make me wary of being too optimistic.)

I was very apprehensive going into this. Actually, I was downright nervous. Finding a tractable research problem for myself is enough of a challenge, but finding one appropriate for someone with an undergraduate background, where they could learn enough of the area to understand and make progress on the problem, seemed an incredibly daunting task. Nevertheless, people do it. There are REU programs all over the country, so surely it can be done.

I prepared for this in a few different ways. I talked with professors in the department who have done it in the past. We talked about selecting a problem, getting the students up to speed, managing the group dynamics, etc. Also, I attended an excellent workshop at the spring 2008 meeting of the MAA Seaway Section by Francis Su of Harvey Mudd college. He has been doing research with undergrads for years, and he really broke it down and made seem manageable.

My biggest obstacle seemed to be how to get the students up to speed and actually working on the problem quickly. Do it too quickly and they won’t have a good sense of the context or a deep enough understanding of the problem. This could lead to initial attempts that are overly naive, or a lack of motivation. Do it too gradually, and too much of the eight weeks is taken up by learning background before they even start the problem. This could lead to a drain on the initial excitement and enthusiasm of starting the REU, enthusiasm that should be harnessed, not squandered. After all, research is hard. There will be frustration enough.

I decided on the essentials they needed to have, and to avoid too much of me lecturing, I assigned them mini-presentations in the first week. We met for the first time on Monday, and at the end of the afternoon session, I gave each student (there were 3) the equivalent of a short chapter to read, learn, and present a 10 minute talk to the other 2 students and me. It was not a formal presentation, they would not be judged on their speaking style or anything, and if they got stuck we would help them through it. It was understood that this was new material to them and they weren’t yet expected to speak as an expert, but they should attempt to do as thorough a job as they could in the time given. This was assigned at the end of our first day, Monday, and they were to present on Wednesday morning. I would be available for questions before the presentations if they wanted or needed it.

I thought the talks went very well. No one ran screaming, and they all took their assignment seriously. So I followed it up with a more in-depth talk, about 30 minutes long, to be delivered on Friday morning. They were doing pretty well by this time, so I assigned topics that, if they understood them, would enable them to understand the main question our research was to be centered on. It worked! The talks went well; they knew from the friendly atmosphere I took the effort to create for the first talk that this wasn’t something they would be judged harshly on, and they seemed much less stressed. They did a nice job, and in the afternoon session of the first Friday, we were able to state the problem in an appropriate amount of detail. I was so happy to be able to get to that point before the first week ended.

A large part of this was due to my having high expectations of them, and communicating those expectations. Also, the talks early on got them involved in learning the background more than if they were just listening to me and reading books and papers. (All these happened too, and were essential.) I think those early talks gave them a sense of teaching each other, collaborating with each other. Whatever it was, I rested much easier after that first week was over.

The rest of it was very good. They made good progress, they got stuck, they got unstuck, they went down dead ends, … in short, they got a good idea of what math research is like. They were also successful in making conjectures, proving some of them, giving a great presentation to the other groups in the REU, and writing a nice paper about it. At this point I suspect the paper is at least worthy of being published in an undergraduate journal, perhaps more. I’ll be reading it next week with fresh eyes after having put it down for a week. One of the students is giving a talk about our results at a national conference in a session on student research this week.

I am incredibly proud of and impressed by these guys. They did a fantastic job, they worked hard and long, they were tenacious and creative, and they produced a nice paper at the end. I’m also very happy with myself that I was able to provide an environment that let them achieve what they did. What a great feeling! This is one of my most fulfilling professional moments ever. I hear that not every experience doing research with undergrads is this fulfilling, but I’m so looking forward to doing it again!


JMM 2008

January 18, 2008 at 9:14 am | Posted in conference, math | Leave a comment

Not counting travel days, we were only in San Diego for 3 days. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, 1/6-1/8. The first was spend going to talks, preparing for my talk on Monday, and meeting up with colleagues/friends I haven’t seen in a while. It would have been the day to meet up with other folks. See a couple of days before I left, my Dad told me I have a relative out there, and my chair told me we have an alum out there. I had grand plans of meeting up with both of them, but it just didn’t work out.

Then Monday came and I gave my talk. Received well, I think, and I went a few minutes over, so there were no questions. The organizer made some comments afterward, though, and asked me for a preprint. So that was good. Now I have time pressure to get that going. I work better with deadlines, so this is good.

Tuesday I started coming down with the flu. I was achy, and starting to get a touch of the fever. I know because I went to the wrong talk and didn’t realize it. It’s over a week later and I’m still trying to kick this last little bit.

Other stuff that happened, I found a great puzzle in the exhibitors’ area. I’ll post the link when I find it. I also met up with various folks from Project NExT, Montclair State University and other places. Jenny & I had some really good food. Good Thai in particular. Oh, I organized the 3rd annual University of Arizona JMM get-together. I think it’s time to organize this ahead of time and get a room and a spot in the program. I wonder if I’ll be going next year.

MAA Seaway Section Meeting

October 29, 2007 at 2:14 am | Posted in conference, math | 2 Comments

Last weekend I and three other faculty brought 10 of our undergrad students to a local conference in Rochester, NY.  None of them had ever been to a conference before, and they liked it.  Joe Gallian was scheduled to speak, and he’s just a great speaker, I had to take them.  They were so psyched, they want to start a student chapter of the MAA.  Very cool!  I’ve got to bug folks this week to figure out how to be an advisor for a math club.  I guess the trip worked a little too well!  A good friend of mine describes these as “problems we like to have.”

MathFest 2007

August 10, 2007 at 12:58 am | Posted in conference, math | Leave a comment

This entry was written on Thursday 8/2/07

I can do this.

I’m here at the Project NExT workshop in San Jose, California at the beginning of MathFest, the MAA annual summer conference.

I love Project NExT. I describe it in some detail here. There’s lots of workshops about things that concern people in the beginning of their careers as math professors. Lots of great people to make contacts with who are good at what they do and have expertise and a willingness to help and guide folks like me, or who are at the same stage as I am who are asking similar questions and with whom I can have some solidarity.

But perhaps the best thing about it for me this time is the much needed emotional boost. I need to be occasionally reminded that I can do this. I can be great at this. I have a great support network, I have the ability to be great at my job, and even though I feel overwhelmed and that I’m not really making progress and that I’m making so many mistakes, I can be great. They picked me as one of 80 Project NExT fellows from hundreds of applicants, which means I’ve already done good stuff, and that according to these people, these experienced people who include accomplished teachers, published authors, award winning student mentors, and an MAA president, I have the potential to be great.

I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying this because sometimes I forget it. Sometimes I don’t believe it. But I can do this. I can be excellent at my job. I can work with my colleagues, I can inspire my students, and I can have a fulfilling life besides.

Thank you, Joe, Aparna, Chris, and Gavin.

Flight regulations for baggage

August 1, 2007 at 2:58 pm | Posted in conference | 2 Comments

If you’re flying, you should know about the 3-1-1 rule.

At least they seem to have standardized it. For a while I wasn’t sure what they were allowing or not, and it seemed to change from week to week.

Red tape

July 19, 2007 at 6:17 pm | Posted in conference, math | Leave a comment

I wonder … if I kept track of the time it takes to fill out all these frickin’ forms, took how much money I end up getting from all the different offices and departments toward my upcoming trip to the Joint Math Meetings, how much money do I make per hour? Divide total funding by mind-numbing hours spent cutting through red tape and dancing the government agency shuffle. If asking for money is a profession, how much does it pay?

Of course, the real question is, could I make more money some other way for the same number of hours? Tutoring? Waiting tables?

One wonders …

Hey, I just thought of something. There are people whose sole job it is to write grants. If it pays to have a person like that, then the getting of grants has to be worth the effort! Hmm …

We’re going to San Diego!

July 19, 2007 at 1:04 pm | Posted in conference, life, math | 2 Comments

I’ve been invited to speak in a special session at the Joint Math Meetings in January in San Diego! Woo-hoo!!

Ok, for those of you who aren’t privvy to the math-world, let me fill y’all in. This is not Nobel Prize level, Fulbright level, … nothing like that. All it means is that I’m a working mathematician, and I’m social enough to talk to people with similar interests. The “special session” is a group of mathematicians working in the same area as my dissertation was in. I was excited to find the special session two years ago at the JMM in San Antonio, and last year I struck up a conversation with the organizers. I also told them my office mate and colleague Arlo was working in the same area, and he got an invite, too.

My school is paying for my trip since I’m presenting, so Jenny and I are chipping in the rest so she can come, too. Finally, my wife is travelling with me to one of these conferences! Of course, I’ll be busy a lot of the time with math stuff and hanging out with math folks. After all, that’s part of what got me this invite in the first place. But there’s some talks she might be interested in, and she’s used to hanging with math folks. She even likes it sometimes. We may see some friends we haven’t seen in a while, too. And then we’ll spend some time alone together doing stuff. The old town is pretty cool from what I remember.

All the academics who read this blog will be completely nonplussed by this news. It’s life as an academic. Pretty ordinary, actually … nothing to write home about. But it’s a first for me — an invited research talk. And so, it’s worth recording to me.


May 1, 2007 at 10:23 pm | Posted in conference, life, weather | 1 Comment

Finals are upon me. So I’ll be blogging intermittently at best. A couple of things…

The conference was very good. Left me feeling a bit refreshed and rejuvanated. Something necessary at this time of year.

Weather’s warming up, and it’s so great! Granted, it’s often in the 30s in the early morning, but after this winter, I walk to work in short sleeves and a light jacket and laugh at the thermometer. Ha!

Psyched about Rites of Spring. I might do a drum making workshop! Putting off thinking in too much depth about the house we’re buying this summer until finals are over. Trying to support Jenny in her efforts. Trying to plan medium/long term for my job re. writing papers, planning future classes, etc.

Wow, I’m busy. I’d better get back to it.

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