Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Reflections on the teaching of "Mathematics for Sustainability" - 1

So, we completed the first semester of teaching MATH033 - "Math for Sustainability".  About forty hardy students signed up, and as the semester progressed I felt that a learning community and class spirit began to come together.  For me as the lead instructor, I can say for sure that I have never had to work so hard on preparing a course!  It reminded me strongly of the time when I was a new faculty member - but even then, though I had not taught the courses before, I had at least experienced courses somewhat like them.  This time around, I felt like I was trying to create something almost entirely new.  It was stressful, but also extremely exciting.

I have this summer to reflect on the lessons learned from this first test run, and then we will offer the course again in the fall.  I'm planning to write a series of posts on this blog reflecting on various aspects of our experience with MATH033.  These will be part of my personal review process.   Among the topics I want to reflect on are:
  • The course content.  How well did the "four themes" organization (measuring, changing, risking, networking) work as a device for framing "sustainability math"?  How clear was it to students and faculty?   Especially in the fourth segment, "networking", I found myself talking more about decision-making (game theory) and less about connectivity (graph theory) than I had expected; I wonder if it would be better to re-name that last unit "Deciding".
  • The case study component: about a third of the class sessions were designated "case studies", applying course ideas to a particular environmental topic, and of those about half were delivered by visiting speakers.  How successful were these sessions in contributing to the overall objectives of the course? Could/should we try to focus on "case study themes" which cut across the "mathematical  segments" of the course?   Case studies which referred specifically to the PSU campus seemed to particularly engage many students: can we build on that?
  • The writing requirement component of the course needs to be thought about at greater length.  I wanted students to post regularly on a blog, using the skills that they had learned to make mathematically sound arguments about sustainability-related topics.  In general, I was disappointed with the results (though there were some excellent posts).  I didn't think enough about the fact that we would need to teach how to use mathematically ideas in writing pieces, and I didn't set the grading system up to give students enough push to revise and improve their pieces.  I strongly believe though that learning through writing quantitative arguments is an important component of the course, for reasons well expressed in this syllabus from Marilyn Frankenstein.  So this is something I need to work on restructuring over the summer.
The web site for the course is here.

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