From Valley News July 18, 1999
Dartmouth Project Seeks
To Integrate Math Teaching
By Rich Barlow
Valley News Staff Writer
HANOVER -- Just how dreary do some people find math? The late mathematician and Dartmouth president John Kemeny was once asked by a freshman whether he should study math as part of the college's science requirement.
My son didn't. Kemeny drolly replied, so why should you?
A protege of Einstein, Kemeny knew how his discipline could repel those without an aptitude for numbers. "If the job of education is (convincing) people that they want to learn science or they want to learn mathematics, well, we don't maybe do such a great job," says Dartmouth mathematician Dorothy Wallace. Yet billions of tax dollars are spent on science research grounded in math; countless jobs hinge on America matching math wits with our science savvy foreign competitors. Educationally, even the most number-phobic humanities student can't dodge the subject's influence. You probably wouldn't have the slightest idea what Shakespeare was talking about when he wrote that stuff about music from the spheres in Twelfth Night, unless you knew that he was referring to an ancient mathematical notion of planetary movement.
Realizing that math is the link between many layers of academia. the federal National Science Foundation awarded Dartmouth $4 million to spread math instruction across disciplines and at campuses across the country. With the twin goals of making nonscientists more science-literate and improving the scientific education of the scientists who'll be running our labs in the future, the college launched a Mathematics Across the Curriculum project, to last five years. That was four years ago, so simple math suggests the work must be about done.
In fact, the project created 11 new courses at Dartmouth partnering math with other departments -- from "Mathematics and Science Fiction: The Fire in the Equations" (comparative literature) to "A Matter of Time" (Spanish literature) to "How Many Angels?: Mathematics, Philosophy and the Infinite" (philosophy, obviously). A studio art class, in which students analyzed the math involved in various design patterns, had a guest lecture from the set designer for The Lion King.
James McMahon, a junior who took the science fiction class, says each week featured one math lecture, one literature lecture and a discussion session combining both disciplines. "Many of the short stories which we read were actually somewhat technical," says McMahon, an English major who's minoring in engineering, and while math knowl edge wasn't essential to enjoying the readings, it helped. "I hope that courses like this one continue to receive support from the administration."
Besides the new courses, 13 already existing classes borrowed materials from the NSF project, sometimes in little ways. (For an earth sciences class, the project is producing videotapes that explain the math behind the computer equipment used in the course.)
The grant also has paid for Dartmouth-run workshops for scholars from other campuses, who tend to tailor the material for their own use rather than ape it exactly. That's appropriate, says Wallace, the lead researcher for the NSF project. "Not a lot of institutions are like Dartmouth, in the sense that our students come in with a very good mathematics background. Even the ones who think that they're not very good at math ... have incredible preparations compared to your average college student."
About a dozen textbooks growing out of the project, by scholars at Dartmouth and elsewhere, are in the works. "We think that's the strongest (method) for dissemination" nationally, says the NSF's Jim Lightbourne, program director for the Dartmouth initiative. "They've done an excellent job, I think, in terms of identifying areas where materials could be developed."
Dartmouth recognized that liberal arts college students could need similar help with math long before the NSF checks came in. Twenty years ago, a summer-term science course for nonscientists, "Earth, Moon and Planets," drew such sell-out crowds with its layman's mix of math and science that students nicknamed it Earth, Moon and Every body. Taken more seriously was a course on the history of major theories in astronomy. Charts and graphs were as rare as an appearance by Haley's Comet; the professor explained ideas, in plain English. He'd preview the course on Day I by announcing it would delve into such matters as how parts of human bodies date back to the Big Bang -- an attention-getter for even the most devoted English major.
But now there's evidence that the Renaissance-person approach of tying subjects together not only benefits humanities students but may attract more people to pursue advanced science study.
Last year, of the students entering Dartmouth's basic, two-term physics sequence, 53 percent said they wanted to major in "hard" sciences such as physics, engineering or chemistry, says Wallace. The percentage increased marginally, to 56, by the end of the sequence. But there was a much more pronounced leap of interest among students who took a course integrating physics with math that grew out of the NSF Project -- from 68 percent at the beginning to 88 percent at the end. Moreover, students in integrated classes seem to retain math knowledge better than students in nonintegrated classes, says Wallace.
With a year to go in the grant, the college faces a decision about how to make sure the initiative's effects linger. An NSF review committee called Dartmouth's project the most "ambitious and far reaching" of a half dozen similar projects around the country and recommended that the college create an on-campus center to continue the work.
-Dartmouth Program Aims to Integrate Math in Other Curriculums-