Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mathematics for Sustainability 1

Warwick University Maths Island This year, I want to develop a new math course.  Nothing surprising in that - it is what math professors do all the time!   But usually, when we dream of new courses, we are thinking of small classes of eager graduate students to whom we can explain the latest research ideas.   Here, I'm after something a bit different.

The goal will be through a General Education Mathematics course, to enable students to develop the quantitative and qualitative skills needed to reason effectively about environmental and economic sustainability.  That's a lot of long words!   Let me unpack a bit:
  • General Education Mathematics At most universities (including PSU), every student, whatever their major, has to take one or two "quantitative" courses - this is called the "general education" requirement.  I want to reach out to students who are not planning to be mathematicians or scientists, students for whom this may be the last math course they ever take. 
  • quantitative and qualitative skills I want students to be able to work with numbers ("quantitative") - to be able to get a feeling for scale and size, whether we're talking about gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, kilowatts of domestic power, or picograms of radioisotopes.  But I also want them to get an intuition for the behavior of systems (qualitative), so that the ideas of growth, feedback, oscillation, overshoot and so on become part of their conceptual vocabulary.
  • to reason effectively A transition to a more sustainable society won't come about without robust public debate - I want to help students engage effectively in this debate. Shamelessly stealing ideas from Andrew Read's Science in Our World course, I hope to do this by using an online platform for student presentations. Engaging with this process (which includes commenting on other people's presentations as well as devising your own) will count seriously in the grading scheme.
  • environmental and economic sustainability I'd like students to get the idea that there are lots of scales on which one can ask the sustainability question - both time scales (how many years is "sustainable") and spatial scales.  We'll think about global-scale questions (carbon dioxide emissions being an obvious example) but we'll try to look at as many examples as possible on a local scale (a single building, the Penn State campus, local agriculture) so that we can engage more directly.  
I have been thinking about this plan for a year or more but now it's time to put it into action.  I've been in touch with my department head and got a green light to offer this for the first time in Spring 2014. In future posts I will share some more about the structure of the course as it develops.  Meanwhile, if anyone has some good suggestions, let me know!

Photo: Warwick University Maths Island in Second Life, by Flickr user wordshore, licensed under Creative Commons.

4 comments:

byron smith said...

I love it.

I've felt for a while that an intuitive sense of scale is critical to grasping and reasoning about ecological issues.

Jon Awbrey said...

Building bridges between qualitative methods (for example, logic) and quantitative methods has exercised me quite a bit over the years.

Everyone knows about the qualitative theory of differential equations — here are some indications of my attempt to develop a differential theory of qualitative equations:

http://mywikibiz.com/Directory:Jon_Awbrey/Papers/Differential_Logic_and_Dynamic_Systems_2.0

Maybe you will find some useful ideas in it.

Mark Crowley said...

Sounds like a great approach. I just wanted to point out some similar ideas that are catching on in computer science. One is Computational Sustainability, some in that community are trying to collaboratively develop an online textbook of computational and mathematical concepts relevant to sustainability.

Mark Crowley said...

Sounds like a great approach. I just wanted to point out some similar ideas that are catching on in computer science. One is Computational Sustainability, some in that community are trying to collaboratively develop an online textbook of computational and mathematical concepts relevant to sustainability.