On View for Fall: An Impressive Slate of Math Education Projects

September 23, 1999

From the SIAM President
Gilbert Strang

In the middle of a summer heat wave, education isn't the most obvious topic to write about. But four different things recently emerged, all connected to teaching, and the new school year is dangerously close.

Project NExT was created for new PhDs who are starting careers in college teaching. It is organized by the MAA, but I had a chance to speak to this year's fellows about SIAM. This is an extremely lively and inspiring group-my main point is to recommend that more young applied mathematicians should join! Of the 70 fellows I met in Providence, I already knew several from SIAM meetings. The level of mutual support in the whole group is terrific. The Web site is archives.math.utk.edu/projnext.

My second experience was hearing Uri Treisman talk about his work to improve school mathematics in Texas. His accent is not quite Texan, but one day Governor Richards called to offer him a job. Mathematics scores in Texas were falling, and the power to make changes was so diffuse that it couldn't be focused, and for some reason Texas thinks of itself as a great state (and Texas and Massachusetts are rivals).

Treisman has shown what can be done. He enlisted churches and local organizations and connected them through the Web. The rules were changed so that superintendents would be judged by the lowest ranking group in their district. As a result, resources were quickly shifted to raise the lowest scores. This maximin strategy, and constant attention from Treisman, accelerated a system that has enormous inertia. The state ranking has jumped way up.

The problem is not limited to Texas. President Clinton has just appointed a high-level commission, headed by John Glenn, especially to train and retain good teachers in mathematics and science. The panel includes two people from universities who are close to mathematics---Brit Kirwan, a mathematician and president of Ohio State University, and Deborah Ball, a specialist in early mathematics teaching at the University of Michigan. The Glenn Commission announcement invites the public to help.

My fourth comment about education is partly personal, and it comes back to the Web. We are so far from knowing how to use it effectively. Eric Grosse of Bell Labs would like to see SIAM routinely record the audio and the view-graphs of plenary talks, posting the material on its conference Web site the following week.(SIAM's 1998 workshop on object-oriented computing was videotaped and is available on the Web (http://www.msri.org/communications/video/index7.html). Also available on the MSRI site are selected lectures from the SIAM 45th Anniversary Meeting at Stanford.) When Gian-Carlo Rota suddenly died, I thought it was terrible that his lectures had not been videotaped. It turns out that like many universities, MIT has a center to do that professionally. I have asked if they could make my linear algebra lectures freely available, and it looks as if they will. I have not the slightest idea if students will watch them, at MIT or anywhere else. But without trying we will never know.

SIAM is gradually completing recommendations for programs in computational science and applied mathematics. In so many ways it appears that mathematics education is moving in our direction. How do we deal with that?

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