Saturday, January 14, 2012

Marty Walter's "Mathematics for the Environment"

One of my plans for next year is to design a"general education" mathematics course that will teach some basic concepts related to sustainability at the same time.

In a big university like Penn State, thousands of students each year take math courses to satisfy their "GQ" (general education - quantification) requirement.  Many of them will take precalculus courses, which provide foundational skills for calculus and advanced mathematics but are not always tailored to students for whom this is the last math course they will ever take.

Can we do better for these students? I think we can.

For example, a few years ago I encouraged some colleagues to develop a "Mathematics of Money" course which weaves the GQ requirement around basic financial literacy skills.  Students learn the math but at the same time they develop understanding and abilities that they can use as soon as they need a loan or use a credit card.

Appreciating sustainability and unsustainability is going to be just as important to this generation of students, I believe, and again the basic concepts lie within the realm of elementary mathematics: proportion, exponentials and logarithms, simple algebra....

I was planning to write a textbook for this hypothetical course, until I discovered at the recent AMS meeting that my colleague Marty Walter from CU Boulder has written it already.  Marty has been using a preliminary version of this 650-page volume as a class text for years.  In its combination of mathematics and radicalism it reminds me strongly of Lancelot Hogben's classic "Mathematics for the Million".  It's incredibly broad, dealing with growth, peak oil, global warming, finance, how to obtain information, power generation,epidemics, encryption, and kinship relations among the Warlpiri people of Australia, among other things. The unifying theme is to show how much gain in understanding some simple mathematical thinking can bring.

Of course there is room for more than one book on this subject - I don't really think that Marty has made all other writing unnecessary.  But it was both a surprise and a joy to listen to him talking about this stuff, and to realize that someone else in our profession had been thinking along similar lines (ahead of me!) and had reached similar conclusions.

Marty's introduction to the course (for students) can be found here.

1 comment:

Μ+Λ said...

I am very glad to meet Mr. Walter next March! He is invited to a conference in my native city and he will present us his work.