VictorDonnay of Bryn Mawr College makes mathematics engaging during 2015 SENCER Summer Institute

Victor Donnay Makes Mathematics Engaging, Interdisciplinary, and Relevant to the Real World

Victor Donnay’s plenary address during the 2015 SENCER Summer Institute had a clear goal—to show the connection between mathematics and the issues people care about.

Victor, who is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair of Mathematics at Bryn Mawr College and an advisory board member for NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics initiative, has the same goal for his students.

Victor uses various assignments to make the connection between mathematics and real world issues clear. During his plenary, Victor shared three examples of such assignments with the audience.

In the first assignment Victor shared, students are instructed to take a homework problem and describe in one paragraph how the mathematics involved might be used to address a real world issue. Students post their paragraphs online and read three others posted by their classmates. From this assignment, something like the concept of related rates in calculus transforms from a general question about how quickly two planes move away from each other into a question about how vocabulary growth rates differ for children born into different socioeconomic classes.

In Victor’s second assignment, students find an article about mathematics in a newspaper or on the web and post it to the class website with a one-paragraph summary. They then read three other summaries and write comments on them. This assignment exposes students to real-world, relevant, and newsworthy mathematics.

In the third assignment, which serves as a final project in Victor’s multivariable calculus course, students pick a world topic that interests them and a topic they learned from the course and show how they are connected. Students present their work at a reception where they can discuss their projects with a general audience.

Victor is also highly focused on issues of environmental studies and sustainability. He chairs the college’s Sustainability Leadership Group, directs the Environmental Studies program, and has taught numerous courses that integrate sustainability with mathematics.

In his mathematics of sustainability courses, he focuses on social, economic, and environmental issues, because all three have an impact on sustainability. His students have studied the Rwandan genocide, population growth models, and tipping points.

Victor worked with TED-Ed to create a short animated video on how tipping points relate to the mathematics of climate change. In the video, titled “Our Chaotic Climate,” chaotic billiard motion explains how a two-degree increase in Earth’s average temperature can lead to substantial consequences.

Victor also incorporates service learning into his mathematical modeling and sustainability course, allowing students to work to make a real difference on their campus and in their community. Student projects range from examining the energy footprint for a renovation of the science building to measuring the level of safety of bike routes. Two of Victor’s students were publicly recognized for their efforts in helping Haverford Township apply for a grant from the Pennsylvania Energy Department Authority to help fund a geothermal energy system for the Community Recreation Environmental Center, a direct result of their service-learning project that explored the center’s options for alternative energy sources.

Students react well to being able to make a difference through their course work. As one of Victor’s students said, “The end results of all the projects were pretty satisfying; it made you feel like you were making a contribution and that you might actually be able to affect something.”

Reactions from the plenary audience were largely positive as well. Overheard were comments from attendees along the lines of, “I never knew this was math!” Victor’s plenary did a great job of showing how mathematics relates to current world problems and topics in many other disciplines, from environmental sustainability to social justice. He helped SSI 2015 attendees see that mathematics is accessible, exciting, and important.

For more from Victor’s plenary, please access these resources:

  1. Presentation slides
  2. References
  3. Handout
  4. “Our Chaotic Climate” TED-Ed video

Engaging Mathematics Leads Hands-On Session and Delivers Plenary Address during 15th Annual SSI

During the 15th Annual SENCER Summer Institute held last week at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the Engaging Mathematics initiative led a hands-on session in which participants tried out lessons and curricular units that faculty from the Engaging Math project have developed, all of which illustrate how to connect important topics in mathematics to a variety of civic issues. We are pleased to share these lessons and associated materials here on our project website, so that even if you weren’t able to join us in Worcester, you will still be able to access and use the Engaging Mathematics lessons in your own classroom, with your own students.

The lessons cover civic topics in environmental science, health, social justice, and sustainability, and are applicable to statistics, college algebra, pre-calculus, calculus, and mathematics for liberal arts courses. For an outline of the agenda of the hands-on session, links to lessons and materials covered by session presenters, and links to our Engaging Mathematics Advisory Board member Victor Donnay’s plenary slides, references, and handouts, please see the document below:

Download (PDF, 101KB)

Engaging Mathematics To Be Represented at Upcoming March Meetings

March will be a busy time for Engaging Mathematics–we will be represented at several upcoming meetings!

Wm. David Burns (Engaging Math Principal Investigator) and Victor J. Donnay (Engaging Math Advisory Board member) will be speaking at the jointly held Chicago Symposium Series on March 13 and the SCI-Midwest regional meeting on March 14. Both meetings will be held at Northeastern Illinois University.

For the Chicago Symposium series, David will be speaking about “Multidisciplinary Trouble” and offering “Some Thoughts on the Future Directions of Education and Our Democracy”. Victor will be giving a keynote address and offering an interactive session on mathematical lessons that involve sustainability themes, in which all meeting participants can work through problems and develop their own lessons for implementation on their home campuses.

At the regional meeting, David will address the academic structural and cultural barriers to pedagogical progress in STEM fields, and Victor will speak about using service learning involving sustainability in math classes.

Frank Wattenberg (Engaging Math Co-Principal Investigator) will be speaking at the 27th International Conference on Technology in Collegiate Mathematics (ICTCM) from March 12-15 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Frank is organizing a session with three talks on math courses that incorporate meaningful civic applications–the types of math courses that the Engaging Mathematics initiative is working to develop.

We are certainly looking forward to March, and are grateful for the exciting opportunities these meetings offer for our project.

Photo credit: Yann Caradec. No changes were made to the original photo. License.

The Summative Successes of Dr. Victor J. Donnay

Congratulations are in order for Dr. Victor J. Donnay, who has not only been named the William R. Kenan, Jr. Chair of Mathematics during Bryn Mawr College’s recent commencement ceremony, but has also appeared on G-town Radio’s talk program “Science 2.0: Science for the Rest of Us” on May 24.

During the radio interview, Dr. Donnay discussed how math relates to environmental sustainability. In case you missed the live stream, or just want to hear it again, you can listen to a recording of the program at Podomatic.

Dr. Donnay currently serves as an advisory board member for NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics initiative. His Ordinary Differential Equations in Real World Situations course was selected as a SENCER model in 2008. We are proud to have him in the SENCER community, and are pleased to extend our congratulations on his most recent achievements.

Article originally published June 4, 2014.

Sustainable Scholarship

Dr. Rikki Wagstrom first offered a SENCER math course at Metropolitan State University, a lead institution for NCSCE’s Engaging Mathematics initiative, in the fall of 2008. At the 2006 SENCER Summer Institute, she noticed that most SENCER courses were science courses. This inspired her to SENCERize a math course, Metro State’s Math 101, by integrating it with sustainability issues. Her course design was informed by the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). SoTL encourages instructors to research how their teaching methods affect learning and then publicize their findings, helping to advance both the teaching and learning aspects of education.

“Using a SoTL approach forced me to think strategically about the course design,” Wagstrom says. “I knew I wanted to integrate sustainability topics into the Math 101 course, ultimately to investigate the impact on student learning. So I considered from the very beginning what aspects of student learning I was interested in studying and immediately developed preliminary assessment instruments. Having these end targets in my mind helped me focus, structure, and revise the curriculum. My SoTL work made me much more aware of the relationship between how I approach new topics and what students actually learn. By regularly evaluating my students’ work in conjunction with the SoTL project, I discovered how they made sense of the topics they were studying. I would then revise the curriculum in light of their experience and backgrounds, and outcomes subsequently improved.”

Another influence on Math 101’s SENCERization was Kennesaw State College’s Earth Algebra course, which teaches college-level algebra through the context of global warming. Earth Algebra was the result of a FIPSE-funded project. The principal investigators for the project conducted a study of the course’s effectiveness, and found that the civically centered curriculum caused students to make gains in both their views toward mathematics and their abilities to perform data analysis and mathematical modeling, while obtaining no less significant knowledge of algebra than students in traditional courses.

Dr. Wagstrom also conducted a study of her Math 101 course, but did so without the benefits of funding and collaborators, as the Kennesaw study had. Her results showed that integrating sustainability issues into her course was as effective at building students’ mathematical skills as a traditional algebra course, and often better. Additionally, it increased students’ confidence with, and interest in, the subject. An article describing Dr. Wagstrom’s research was published in the Summer 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed Science Education and Civic Engagement: an International Journal, and a detailed account of her study also appears as a chapter in Doing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Mathematics.

The observed student-learning gains from Dr. Wagstrom’s Math 101 course led her to receive a Center for Teaching and Learning STEM grant from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to expand her earlier work by creating a Math 102 course called Mathematics of Sustainability. This course counts for both a general education and college algebra credit, and covers mathematical topics from environmental, social, and economic perspectives.

Before she packages Mathematics of Sustainability into a teaching manual, which will be published online in December 2014 as part of the Engaging Mathematics initiative, she intends to add a two-part activity on monarch butterflies and a two-part activity on wind energy that will explore both the science and financial viability of the energy source. She would also like to develop a curriculum related to ocean acidification.

In addition, Dr. Wagstrom plans on creating new resources for a Calculus II course that will teach students to model such topics as energy consumption, population dynamics, economic multipliers, the case for buying local, and debt. She will begin developing the curriculum for this course during the fall 2014 and spring 2015 semesters. The course will be offered in spring or summer 2015, and packaged and published online by December 2015.

For updates on how Dr. Wagstrom’s course developments progress, check future issues of the eNews, and follow Engaging Mathematics on Twitter @MathEngaging to stay informed about the rest of the project.

The photograph above is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0. It appears here in its original form. © Copyright 2013 David Levinson “Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed”

Article originally published by Christine Marie DeCarlo on May 8, 2014.