Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Math for a Sustainable Future at the MAA

A bit more than a week ago I was in Washington, DC, for a meeting at the Mathematical Association of America on the subject "Educating with Math for a Sustainable Future".   (That is the Carriage House, MAA's meeting place, in the photo.  It's just a block or so from Dupont Circle.)

A couple of dozen mathematics educators gathered at the Carriage House under the energetic leadership of Debra Rowe.  Some (like me) were just trying to get in to sustainability-themed mathematics education, others had been engaged with it for years.  Some were pure mathematicians at research universities, some were faculty in geosciences or environmental studies with a mathematical bent, some were high school teachers.  Many - though not all - seemed to share a sense that their colleagues regarded trying to build sustainability concerns into mathematics courses as eccentric, if not actually subversive.

Our task - and I was not really up to speed with this - was to develop curriculum materials that could be widely used across universities and colleges, in the US and elsewhere.  In other words, we were to pioneer materials which other teachers could use "off the shelf".  I was not sure I was ready for this, since I haven't taught my own course yet, and don't know how well my own materials will work.  But, at some point you just have to try!  I learned quite a bit from what others were doing and had some lively discussion about food transportation networks - I think the "network" part of my course is the least developed at present so it was good to have the chance to talk some more about that.

I think the only institution that sent two faculty members was Eastern Mennonite University.  I enjoyed learning a bit more about EMU, its faith,m justice and environmental commitments, and hope that's a conversation I might be able to continue.

At the beginning of the workshop we were exhorted to produce materials which did not just highlight environmental problems but also offered solutions to them - "we don't want to leave students feeling that there is no hope".  Some of us felt that the word "solutions" is too cut-and-dried.  There may not be "solutions" to some of our problems, if by that we mean simple changes which will allow business as usual to continue.  Another way of saying that is that we can't talk about hope unless we know what is worth hoping for.  And that is a matter of theology.  Hope does not disappoint us.

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