Student-Driven Education

Sugata Mitra is the 2013 TED Prize winner; that’s what led me to wonder what the heck he did to merit the TED prize. That led me to this video: the child-driven education.

Now I am wondering whether I could have a mathematical modeling class structured around these ideas. Where I had a few very general assignments, and the students were encouraged to go out and learn whatever they wanted so long as it is related to mathematical modeling. Break them into groups of 4, find out what they are interested in learning. Let them surf from group to group.

Where I promised them nothing more than to help them learn whatever they wanted to learn, and I provided a few checks to try to make sure they learned something. And I will be the Grandma, always standing behind them, always encouraging, always saying, show me more.

Would that be amazing? Would it be a total failure? If I teach this class again, I want to try it.

Grades are Earned

Another post on negotiation and grades. I liked this one better.
There is no absolution or negotiation as grades are not given, they are earned. One major difference between this instructor and me: my office hours have been busy since the first week of school. That’s what you get when you teach a project based class. (Also what you get when you teach hundreds of students, as my colleagues can attest!)

I’m feeling far less than my best. One of my programmatic responsibilities is eating my lunch time-wise. It has been doing so all semester. This next 2-3 weeks should be some of the worst of it, and I have another program that I need to work on. Looks like that’s not getting done. I am sure that my stress, anxiety and impatience is obvious to my students. Which is not what I want, since I really do like working with them.

I wonder whether it is better to acknowledge it or to try to cover it up. I am thinking my covering abilities are not so great right now.


I know a lot of my colleagues have been subject to student complaints to our boss. Right now it looks like I might be getting my first experience with this. A student has contacted my supervisor about my class. My supervisor contacted me about this on Friday, and I gave her what information I could on what is going on with the student, and what steps I have taken to address it.

I’m not really worried about it, although I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t bother me.

That this student is complaining makes me wonder if I’ve failed him in some way.

I did fail him in one respect. I have allowed myself to complain about the situation; probably less privately than I should have. I just deleted a lot of words above to make sure I better protect my student’s privacy, and I’m satisfied with that, although not with some of my past words and actions, especially on Friday when I first found out.

Scuttlebutt is that students complain more to departmental administrators than in the past, and judging from some of the things I’ve heard about, I think there is truth in that. Here’s an article on things you didn’t know were negotiable. The #1 item? Grades. If a student doesn’t successfully negotiate with an instructor, is it onward to the Assistant or Associate Head of Undergraduate Operations? I sincerely hope our administrators back us up.

I’ll stick with old-fashioned here. If I make a mistake, I am happy to correct it. But let me make this clear, grades are not a negotiation. You earn what you get from me or you do not. I’m not going to give you something because you’ll lose a scholarship or be suspended from the university if I don’t. Not because I’m afraid you’ll go complain.

Mathemagical Moments

XKCD is the best!

One of the best things about my job: watching 3 of my students in an intense discussion of a problem on the homework. One of my often less-motivated students holding her own arguing with the two other guys about how to solve the problem.

I realized today that the LaTeX my students are producing in their reports is so much cleaner and nicer than what I’ve seen in previous semesters. I gave them LaTeXercises at the beginning. I took a list of my pet peeves from student reports and marched this crop of students through correcting them one by one for the first homework assignment. I instructed the TAs to be draconian about grading; you either reproduced the document perfectly or points came off. That did not endear me to the students; I got complaints on the early course feedback, “I missed one space and a whole point was taken off!” Sigh. Indeed, I am so mean.

Complaining aside, I think it was worth it. For me. Maybe not for them. I’ve been preaching the gospel about composing in LaTeX or a text editor rather than composing in a word processor; this should also help. None of that would matter if no one was listening to me. Clearly quite a few someones are. I have to remember to share this with them.

At the beginning of the semester, I felt bad for not doing much math, and now we are in lots-and-lots of math mode. We just has the most mathematically brutal assignment of the semester; some cleverness, some common sense, and a whole lot of algebra.

Project 2 is about population models; we do curve fitting to three reasonably well-known population models. Exponential growth, the logistic function, and the Gompertz function. All are non-linear. We will use linear least squares to get an initial estimate for the function parameters; then we use a nonlinear least squares optimizer to improve our parameter estimates.

We go through a basic calculus lesson about linear least squares, in which we calculate the squared error, see that it has a minimum, and then take derivatives and set them equal to zero to solve. We get two gnarly equations in two unknowns. Then I walk them through the same problem formulated via linear algebra, where you have an overdetermined system with full rank. Then we discuss how to use this tactic for doing exponential functions. Later on, with one initial guesstimate, we use this for logistic and Gompertz.

We also cover the differential equation formulation of these three models, and how you get the Per unit Population Growth Rate (also called Per Capita Growth Rate) abbreviated PPGR. This is how the population grows per individual in the population per unit time. Exponential growth has a constant PPGR. If you look at the US Census numbers from 1790-1840, you will find the PPGR for the USA was about 0.3 in that time, meaning for every one person in the initial population adds 0.3 persons over the course of a decade. In more recent decades this number is much lower!

If the population in a logistic model is close to zero, the PPGR is constant and it looks like exponential growth. But in a logistic model, we take into account finite resources and space, and it has the PPGR go to zero as the population approaches the limiting population.

The Gompertz model, like the logistic model, takes into account finite resources and space, and its PPGR goes to zero as the population approaches the limiting population. What’s weird about Gompertz is that as the population goes to zero, the PPGR goes to infinity. This model hypothesizes that if there are abundant and unlimited resources, a woman can decrease her genstation period in order to increase her number of births without bound. Clearly unreasonable. Yet the Gompertz model does a good job of fitting population data!

Each student picks his or her own dataset. Any US state or city is open (everyone does the US Population), and any foreign country, state, city, province is open.

When I first put the project together, I was dutifully paying homage to the necessity of teaching curve fitting as a mathematical modeling topic. I thought this was one of the most boring projects in the universe, but we all have to suffer sometimes. I’m surprised at how much rich learning there is in this project. In order for a student to succeed with writing the results and discussing the models and the data, s/he has to know something about the history of the population s/he is working with and be able to connect that history up with what s/he sees in the data and curve fits.

The first semester I taught the course and assigned this project, one of my students had been on a mission trip to Micronesia. He wanted to work with the population of Micronesia. Fine with me. Of course, Micronesia wasn’t really in contact with Western civilization until about the turn of the 20th century. Then things got disrupted by WWII. So there wasn’t a lot of data, and what there was wasn’t very good. My student was off to the library to see if he could dig out more and better. He didn’t get much. We did get some decent curve fits in the end. He learned a lot and I encouraged him to talk about this for his final project presentation. He punctuated the mathematics with photographs he took while he was there, discussing the models, the data, and the history, all at once.

Dumb project indeed. That was a definite win.

Early Course Feedback

Some gems from my early course feedback. We’ll start with the ugly.

Like most classes that require Matlab, the coding is always much more advanced than students are capable of. The math department does not realize the talk amongst the students is how just about all of us don’t know how to use Matlab. Students generally just copy and paste from google searches to get their assignments done and rename functions and variables to look different. When errors still remain, students just have the Matlab TA’s fix the errors for them. Matlab assignments account for most of the hours spent for this class as well as all other courses that require Matlab

I’ve seen too many students grow and learn the Matlab to believe this is true of everyone. I’ve also had students thank me later when they were looking for jobs and discovered employers want them to know Matlab. There are probably one or two using this tactic to get by. I think this student is going to hate my class or drop it; I don’t think you can get away with this in my class for the entire semester.

The teacher cares about teaching a lot but is a little intimidating and scary. She is almost like a mom in that she cares a lot and while I’m sure she is happy she always seems pissed off. My mom is scary when she is pissed off. Dr. (Jinx) expects only the best work, which is good, but at the same time she seems to favor the top students in the class. She is very involved though! She is always willing to help and is willing to give us life/career tips. She genuinely wants you to learn and puts effort into her teaching. Because of this class, I am learning LaTeX and Matlab and I can put the end of semester project on my resume.

At least there’s some good and some bad. I am not happy to hear that I always seem pissed off. Yikes. On the other hand, it is probably good to be perceived as scary when you are pissed off. More respect and all. It’s not like I feel like I get an overabundance of that from my superiors.

Yes, it is easy to favor the top students in the class who show up expecting to work, capable, and happy to learn. On the other hand, I spend a lot of time with some students who are not very strong. Unsurprisingly, many of these end up becoming top performers when they put the effort in, but some don’t. I hope I give them the help they deserve, and appreciation/admiration for the effort they put in to doing well in my class.

I think the professor means well, but does not take into consideration that not everyone in the class loves mathematics as much as she does, but rather are in the course to simply get 3 hours of credit.

Seriously? Please, please, please drop my class. No senior level science or engineering class is going to give you 3 hours of credit for just showing up. If you don’t care to learn, there’s nothing I can do for you. Go find a teacher who doesn’t care.


There are plenty of nice comments, which get swamped out of my emotional buffer by the ones above. What’s the real picture? It is so hard to tell.

Learned more about matlab in this class than I have in the past 3 years

Honestly can say that Dr. (Jinx) is one of the best teachers I’ve encountered at this university and hope she continues to teach as well as she has been.

Encourages class participation, provides examples, effective communicator.

Instructor is very honest and humble. This is something not so easy to come by in some professors.

Finally learning how to put all the math I learned all of my life into proper use.

The student below gave me a B rating on the item “Written assignments are interesting and stimulating” with the following quote:

Lorenz equations opened my mind a little more. One of those things that keep you interested in mathematics.

So am I doing okay? Now there is the question.


I got to be two people today, as I was substituting from my significant other, who is travelling. I visited with two graduate students who are worried about finding jobs. I spent some time with one of my students working on the project, which was due yesterday, but this student actually has an extension until today. I put papers together for my TAs. I went to the Mathematical Biology Class. I emailed a few students who didn’t have extensions and who didn’t hand in project reports; one had an “ooops!!!!!” moment and was grateful, at least. I visited briefly with a colleague with a question about grading a problem I’d put on an exam last semester. And that was it. That was all I got done today.

Unfortunately, none of my grading and none of the REU applications I needed to work on got worked on, but I guess that’s what weekends are for.

I had lunch with a friend today, always a good thing.

Posted in me

Valentine’s Day

Lunch with two of my favorite former students today. That was enjoyable! Happy Valentine’s Day.

Project 1 is due today. Office hours went from after class (3:35 pm) to 6 pm, at which point it was time for me to be done. I returned home with a headache. A few minor crises this evening, one solved by “just put that in your document and resubmit it”. One, “yes, your partner requested an extension to Monday and that applies to you too.” One “my connection with the Calclab isn’t working!” at 10:30 pm, which I think I am not going to answer until tomorrow. At the earliest.

My students are learning many things. Not always what I intended to teach them. Many lessons are being learned about math and writing and the real world and all of its awesome complexity.

Writing is hard, and because it is hard, it is often left to the last minute, which doesn’t make it any easier. We want to sound smart and important, but good writing often consists of making things simple and straightforward. It is hard to write something smart, to spend time and effort and energy on it, and then decide that it has to go because it isn’t simple or straightforward.

I am grateful for the opportunity to teach. I am grateful for those who try to learn from me. I am grateful for having a job that I care about and students who care to learn and try.

I am grateful for my special someone, who is not at home today. I am grateful for salads that he makes. I am grateful to have someone who cares about me. I am grateful for the help around the house and with the yard work. I am grateful that I can help out by taking his class when he is gone. I am grateful that he supports my teaching and my mission. I am grateful that he is patient with my many imperfections.

Things to Appreciate

There’s nothing quite like seeing one of your former students give a seminar to current students, especially when she does a great job. She is now a graduate student with a friend and colleague. I was able to help put those two together in what has been a good collaboration. I am proud of that! The colleague gave the other half of the seminar. He always does a good job; I enjoy his talks. About half my current students were in attendance.

It was fantastic to see my current students asking tons of questions in the seminar tonight. #1 thing I want to help give them is the courage to ask their questions. Okay. I can’t give them courage. I want them to know they have my approval and encouragement for asking their questions. That, perhaps, I have managed to do.

I really was lucky last year in all the things my students accomplished. I was really lucky in having two of my students come with me to MathFest last August. It was so much fun to seeing the world through their eyes.

Sometimes things work out really well, and when they do, you should treasure it. Because there are plenty of times when they aren’t going to work out so well, and you are going to have to use the emotional fuel you are storing to get through it.

I hope I get to bring some of this year’s students with me to MathFest again. I know, I know, it won’t be quite the same as that first time, but I hold out hope that it will be nearly as much fun.


Classes really do have personalities. My morning class has its act together. They are hard at work; they get things done. On the most part, they do them well. The afternoon class struggles. Same material, same day, it always takes longer in the afternoon. If work is undone on assignments, it’s the afternoon class with several members who didn’t get it done. If a group is not paying attention, it’s the afternoon class. If part of the class seems lost on the topic, it’s the afternoon class. I am trying not to be down on that class, but it’s the afternoon class.

I try to use the morning class to keep my spirits up. In the afternoon, spirits up, I just keep trying. There are several students in that class that I really like and who are doing very well. Keep those students moving forward. Help the others as much as I can. Try not to worry about it. When lower grades are earned, they will be recorded. That’s only fair.

I wish I knew what I could change. I am smart enough to recognize that maybe there is nothing I can do to change the class. Each individual person decides what to put in or not; I don’t get to make that choice for them. I still wish there was something I could do to make everyone happy and productive.

Every day, every student, I interact with, I want to bring that student an “I am glad to see you.” Even when I am frustrated and tired. Even when I have to explain the same thing again. It’s hard. I hope I am succeeding at bringing each student an “I am glad to see you,” even when it seems like the other lessons are not sinking in!