Modern Mathematics: Oglethorpe University’s Great Idea

Game, graph, knot, number, and set theory—probability, finance, topology, infinity, and logic: these are a few major mathematical developments that have emerged since the time of Sir Isaac Newton.

Oglethorpe University’s Great Ideas of Modern Mathematics (GIMM) course offers students the chance to delve deeply into three of these recent developments, a chance most English, business, or anthropology majors never get during their undergraduate careers, a chance typically reserved for those majoring in math and science. GIMM, however, is a general education requirement at Oglethorpe, meaning the entire student population, with the exception of those enrolled in the University’s Evening Degree Program, completes the course before graduating. Consequently, the names of approximately 25% of Oglethorpe’s students fill GIMM rosters each year.

GIMM may be well established, but it is anything but rigid or formulaic. In fact, flexibility and experimentation are central to the course’s structure. While every iteration of GIMM covers topics in both probability and formal logic, the third topic is left to the instructor’s discretion.

For NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics initiative, Oglethorpe’s Professors Lynn Gieger and John Nardo plan to align both GIMM’s existing probability module, and other modules yet to be created, with the SENCER Ideals. A key component of the SENCER Ideals involves using civically important topics as frameworks for instruction. Because, as Gieger notes, GIMM is very popular among health science majors, some of these new modules may explore the efficacy of mammograms, pregnancy tests, and drug tests.

Gieger and Nardo also plan to collect survey data from this Spring semester’s GIMM students. Surveys will measure whether students believe mathematics can address real-world problems and will gauge which mathematical topics students find interesting. Survey results will then be used to inform module development, which Gieger and Nardo aim to complete during the Fall 2014 semester. In the Spring and Fall 2015 semesters, they plan to field test, analyze, and revise the modules.

The potential for Gieger and Nardo’s modules to engage students, especially students who do not have a natural interest in mathematics, is supported by the recent popularity, or infamy, of a Numberphile video about infinite sums. The video discusses how, by the use of mathematical tricks, the sum of 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 and on to infinity could equal negative one-twelfth—a problem familiar to mathematicians and physicists before the video’s release, but certainly not to the general public, as evidenced by the video’s comment section. Over 1,800,000 people have viewed the video since its January 9th debut—it even caught the attention of the New York Times—making the case that, if only people knew about the sorts of topics modern mathematics explores, which are many of the same topics covered in GIMM, interest in the subject would, effectively, go viral. Applying SENCER ideals to modules stands only to augment GIMM’s already substantial potential to engage its students.

Though Gieger and Nardo recognize that a course like GIMM may well be unique to Oglethorpe, they believe that their modules will be transferable to at least one course at most institutions. Normandale Community College’s Mathematics for Liberal Arts, which is also being enhanced as part of the Engaging Mathematics initiative, could be one such course. As its title indicates, Mathematics for Liberal Arts is designed for students pursuing liberal arts degrees. Ideally, by the end of the course, after they have studied how mathematics pertains to the local environment and other topics of interest, these non-math majors will have gained an appreciation for the mathematics that surrounds them, hidden in plain sight. Gieger and Nardo hypothesize that modules developed for GIMM could, with minor adaptations and alterations, successfully be incorporated into Normandale’s course.

Increasing non-math majors’ appreciation for the subject is also a main goal of incorporating issues of civic importance into GIMM’s modules. As Gieger explains:

For many of our students, this is their only exposure to mathematics at the college level, and those students in particular tend to be very skeptical about the practical value of mathematical study. Framing modules in this course through the SENCER structure has a great potential to help these students see why mathematics is both beautiful AND useful.

And is not that the best anyone could hope for, being seen as both beautiful and useful? For updates about the status of Gieger and Nardo’s modules, as well as for information on the rest of our faculty’s progress, follow us on Twitter @MathEngaging.

Article originally published by Christine Marie DeCarlo on March, 13 2014.

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