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Topic: equity & diversity
Replies: 7   Last Post: Jun 6, 1995 1:49 PM

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Dax Mitchell

Posts: 3
Registered: 12/6/04
Re: equity & diversity
Posted: Jun 5, 1995 2:20 PM
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This is my first note in this newsletter; I've enjoyed hearing folks'
opinions on these important issues. Dr. Roitman's postings have been
particularly nice and I am replying to add my two cents to the posting
attached below. I'd like to share one (little) thing I did when teaching
a first year calculus course here at Duke to try to show my students that
math is cool and that math is for everyone (my opinions, of course).

When we talked about max/min problems, I told my students that the
ideas about critical points that they were learning were still being used
by some of today's finest mathematicians (I often advertised the fact that
mathematics is still very much alive and that mathematicians had many
exciting problems to choose to work on).

Anyway, I shared with my students about Plateau's problem
(minimizing the area of a membrane--say, soap film--spanning a given
closed wire boundary). We talked about how nature loves to save
(minimize) energy and how it was only natural to expect calculus to enter
the picture in view of what we had been doing with max/min problems. I
indicated to them how generalizations of critical points and calculus
ideas (in this case, the generalization is that we have the area
functional defined on an infinite dimensional space--of course, I would
never say such a scary thing to them) show mathematicians what the
soap-film solutions should look like. Then I handed out xeroxed copies of
a nice and readable article about Jean Taylor, the excellent woman
mathematician who has done much important work on soap-film and soap-
bubble problems. The article appeared in Math Horizons, I believe. Then
I gave them some (easy) extra credit questions on the next test referring
to the article.

I believe that this little tangent I took served a few purposes.
It showed students that the math that they were learning was important and
still being used. And it showed the students that there are top-flight
women mathematicians. One of my women students later commented that
this was a positive experience for her.

Of course, there was nothing clever or original about what I did
in class that day--or other days, when we took similar excursions (we
talked about Wiles' proof of Fermat's last theorem and the demise of
Donaldson theory)--but hopefully some good came of it. I feel that these
occasional excursions were useful for boosting the interest-level of the
class and was good p.r. for mathematics.

I'm eager to hear if other people have tried such things in their
classes and what sort of feedback was given. I believe this fits in with
our discussion of the NCTM standards, since I think the standards aim to
make math more human and pertinent to students.

Dax Mitchell
Duke Math Department

On Mon, 5 Jun 1995 wrote:

> Mark Priniski's anecdote really hits home -- in graduate school I never
> asked a question in class either, but got my friend Doug Miller to ask my
> questions for me. This was back in the early 70's, but I guess things
> haven't changed. In fact I know this from my own students. I'm a past
> president of the Association for Women in Mathematics, a past editor of
> their newsletter, and I still haven't a very good notion of how to deal
> with this kind of thing in my classes, except to be encouraging (as Mark
> was), to make more eye contact with women students, and to call on them
> more often -- sometimes this helps and sometimes it doesn't. It's really
> hard; we're fighting enormous societal pressures. My students tell me that
> now the worst negative pressure isn't from faculty but from peers. I guess
> that's some sort of progress, but peer pressure can be pretty devastating.
> Any and all suggestions out there are welcome.

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