In Defense of Calculus

In the following article, I expand and clarify my arguments that first appeared in this post.

A colleague recently sent me another article (thanks Doug) claiming that Statistics should replace Calculus as the most important math class for high school students.

Which peak to climb? (CCL, click on image for source)

The argument usually goes: Most kids won’t use Calculus. Statistics is more useful.

As you might know already, I disagree that the most important reason for teaching math is because it is useful. I don’t disagree that math is useful. Math is not just useful, but essential for STEM careers. So “usefulness” is certainly one reason for teaching math. But I don’t think it’s the most important reason for teaching math.

The most important reason for teaching math is because it is beautiful and eternal. Math is the single place in school where students can find deductive certainty and eternal truth. Even when human activity ceases, math will persist. When we study math, we tap into something bigger than ourselves. We taste the divine!

We are teaching students to think deductively—like a mathematician would. This is such an important area of knowledge for students to explore. They need to know what it means to prove something. A proof provides a kind of truth that is unattainable in other subjects, even the hard sciences. At best, the scientific method is still just guesses compared to math.

This is the most important thing we pass on to our students. Though some will, most of our students will not directly use the math we teach. This is actually true about every subject in high school. Most students will not remember the details of The Great Gatsby or remember the chemical formula for Ammonium Nitrate. But we do hope they learn the bigger skills: analyzing text and thinking scientifically. In math, the “bigger skills” are the ones I outlined above—proof, logic, reasoning, argumentation, problem solving. They can always look up the formulas.

Math is a subject that stands on its own and it is not the servant of other subjects. If we treat math as simply a subject that serves other subjects by providing useful formulas, we turn math into magic. We don’t need to defend math in this way. It stands on its own!

Calculus = The Mona Lisa

If students can take both Statistics and Calculus, that is ideal. But if I had to choose one, I would pick Calculus. The development of “the Calculus” is one of the great achievements of mankind and it’s a real crime to go through life never having been exposed to it. Can you imagine never having seen The Mona Lisa? Calculus is like the Mona Lisa of mathematics :-).

Random Walks Mural

I’ve been meaning to give the back wall of my classroom a makeover for a while. This summer I finally found some time to tackle the big project. I took down all the decorations and posters. I fixed up the wall and painted it a nice tan color. Then, I let loose the randomness!

and some added, inspirational, text :-)I struggled with what the new mural would be–I’ve thought about it over the last few years. I considered doing some kind of fractal like the Mandelbrot Set. But it should have been obvious, given the name of my blog!! What you see in the picture above is three two-dimensional random walks in green, blue, and red. In the limiting case, one gets Brownian motion:

Brownian motion of a yellow particle in a gas. (CCL)

I honestly didn’t know what it was going to look like until I did it. I generated it as I went, rolling a die to determine the direction I would go each time. I weighted the left and right directions because of the shape of the wall (1,2=right; 3,4=left; 5=up; 6=down). For more details about the process of making it, here’s a documentary-style youtube video that explains all:

Actually, I lied–it doesn’t tell “all.” If you really want to know more of my thought process and some of the math behind what I did, watch the Extended Edition video which has way more mathematical commentary from me. I’ve also posted the time lapse footage of the individual green, blue, and red. Just for fun, here’s an animated random walk with 25,000 iterations:

Wikipedia, Creative Commons License

A two-dimensional random walk with 25,000 iterations. Click the image for an animated version! (CCL)

I think the mural turned out pretty well! It was scary to be permanently marking my walls, not knowing where each path would take me, or how it would end up looking. At first I thought I would only do ONE random walk. However, the first random walk (in blue) went off the ceiling so I stopped. And then I decided to add two more random walks.

In retrospect, it actually makes complete sense. I teach three different courses (Algebra 2, Precalculus, and Calculus) and I’ve always associated with each of theses courses a “class color”–green, blue, and red, respectively. I use the class color to label their bins, to write their objective and homework on the board, and many other things.

The phrase “Where will mathematics take you?” was also a last-minute addition, if you can believe it. There just happened to be a big space between the blue and red random walks and it was begging for attention.

good question!What a good question for our students. The random walks provide an interesting analogy for the classroom. I’d like to say I’m always organized in my teaching. But some of the richest conversations come from a “random walk” into unexpected territory when interesting questions are raised.

Speaking of interesting questions that are raised, here are a few:

  • Can you figure out how many iterations occurred after looking at a “finished” random walk? Or perhaps a better question: What’s the probability that there were more than n iterations if we see m line segments in the random walk?
  • Given probabilities p_1, p_2, p_3, p_4 of going in the four cardinal directions, can we predict how wide and how high the random walk will grow after n iterations? Can we provide confidence intervals? (might be nice to share this info with the mural creator!)
  • After looking at a few random walks, can we detect any bias in a die? How many random walks would want to see in order to confidently claim that a die is biased in favor of “up” or “left”…etc?

Some of the questions are easy, some are hard. If you love this stuff, you might be interested in taking a few courses in Stochastic Processes. Any other questions you can think of?

Where will math take you this coming academic year? Welcome back everyone!

Probability questions from Tanton

Confession: I still haven’t figured out how to use twitter. (Feel free to follow me @mrchasemath, though!) I always feel like I’m drinking from a fire hose when I get on the site–I can’t keep up with the twitter feed, so I don’t even try.

But when I do, I love seeing what people are posting. Here’s a great math problem from James Tanton. He always has such interesting problems!

Feel free to work it out yourself. It’s a fun problem! Here are my tweets that answer the question (can you follow my work?):

It’s hard to do math with 140 characters! :-)

Here’s his follow-up question which has still gone unanswered. My approach to the first problem won’t work here, and I want to avoid brute-forcing it. (Reminds me of my last post!) Any ideas?

Let us know in the comments…or tweet @jamestanton!

Four ways to compute a probability

I have a guest blog post that appears on the White Group Mathematics blog here. (My first guest post!) Here’s a taste:

One thing I love about math, and particularly combinatorics and probability, is the fact that many methods exist for solving the same problem.

Each method may have its advantages. The advantage might be conceptual (as in “this makes most sense to me”) or the advantage might be computational (as in “this is the fastest way to do it”).

Discussing the merits of different methods is exactly what math class is for!

For example, check out this typical probability question that could appear in a Precalculus course:

The Texas Ranger pitching staff has 5 right-handers and 8 left-handers. If 2 pitchers are selected at random to warm up, what is the probability that at least one of them is a right-hander?

In fact, it’s one I use in my own Precalculus course and it generated a great class discussion. In teaching it this past year, I ended up showing students four ways to do the problem this year! Here they are…

For the epic conclusion of this post, visit White Group Mathematics. :-)

MAA Distinguished Lecture Series

If you live in the DC area and you like math, you have no excuse! Come to the MAA Distinguished Lecture Series.

These are one-hour talks, complete with refreshments, all for free due to the generous sponsorship of the NSA. The talks are at the Carriage House, at the MAA headquarters near Dupont Circle.

Here are some of the great talks that are on the schedule in the next few months (I’m especially excited to hear Francis Su on May 14th).

I’ve been to many of these lectures and always enjoyed them. Robert Ghrist‘s lecture was out of this world (here’s the recap, but no video, audio, or slides yet) and was so very accessible and entertaining, despite the abstract nature of his expertise–algebraic topology.

And that’s the wonderful thing about all these talks: Even though these are very bright mathematicians, they go out of their way to give lectures that engage a broad audience.

Here’s another great one from William Dunham, who spoke about Newton (Dunham is probably the world’s leading expert on Newton’s letters). Recap here, and a short youtube clip here:

(full  talk also available)

So, if you’re a DC mathophile, stop by sometime. I’ll see you there!

Math on Quora

quora iconI may not have been very active on my blog recently (sorry for the three-month hiatus), but it’s not because I haven’t been actively doing math. And in fact, I’ve also found other outlets to share about math.

Have you used Quora yet?

Quora, at least in principle, is a grown-up version of yahoo answers. It’s like stackoverflow, but more philosophical and less technical. You’ll (usually) find thoughtful questions and thoughtful answers. Like most question-answer sites, you can ‘up-vote’ an answer, so the best answers generally appear at the top of the feed.

The best part about Quora is that it somehow attracts really high quality respondents, including: Ashton Kutcher, Jimmy Wales, Jermey Lin, and even Barack Obama. Many other mayors, famous athletes, CEOs, and the like, seem to darken the halls of Quora. For a list of famous folks on Quora, check out this Quora question (how meta!).

Also contributing quality answers is none other than me. It’s still a new space for me, but I’ve made my foray into Quora in a few small ways. Check out the following questions for which I’ve contributed answers, and give me some up-votes, or start a comment battle with me or something :-).

And here are a few posts where my comments appear:

USA Science and Engineering Festival

If you’re local, you should go check out the USA Science and Engineering Festival this weekend. It’s on the mall in DC and everything is free.

USA-Science-and Engineering-Festival LogoThey will have tons of booths, free stuff, demonstrations, presentations, and performances. Go check it out!

For my report on the fest from two years ago, see this post. The USA Science and Engineering Festival is also responsible for bringing to our school, free of charge, the amazing James Tanton!