Indiana University  Research & Creative Activity Spring 2002 • Volume XXIV Number 3


Got Math?

by Nick Riddle

Imagine a language that transcends nations and boundaries, a language that can express the very underpinnings of the universe, a language whose rules—unlike those of English, say—are utterly logical. A language that can strike terror into the hearts of those required to learn it.

Do you speak math?

If you don’t, you have no idea of the impact it has on your life, according to Daniel Maki, professor of mathematics and chair of the math department at Indiana University Bloomington.

“Many people tend to see mathematics as an obstacle someone put up to stop them from getting where they want to go,” he says. His desire to counter this tendency is one of the motivating forces behind Mathematics Throughout the Curriculum (MTC), an ambitious project aimed at making mathematics a universal presence in academia.

Bart Ng is professor of mathematical sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. photo©2001 Tyagan Miller

Part of MTC’s mission is to introduce students to a different way of thinking and learning. “People tend to think that learning is just getting information, and critical thinking means regurgitating facts,” says Bart Ng, professor of mathematical sciences at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and co-developer with Maki of the MTC project. “But math can take you deeper into things. It shows you the scaffolding behind a lot of important ideas in many different disciplines.”

The MTC project has its origins in a course that Maki taught with Wayne Winston, professor of business at IU Bloomington, in the Liberal Arts and Management Program. Students with no scientific or mathematical background were shown how problems in their field could be solved using mathematical or statistical techniques. In 1996, with support from the National Science Foundation and additional support from IU’s Strategic Directions Initiative, Maki and Ng launched the Mathematics Throughout the Curriculum program.

The situation that MTC was designed to rectify is a deeply entrenched one. Over the last decade or so, it’s become increasingly clear that American education is failing to equip the population with the necessary skills to succeed in the modern job market. Many see math as a bewildering, even archaic, chore that can now be performed entirely by a computer. That, Maki insists, is a grave mistake. Grasping the fundamentals of mathematics and statistics is essential.

“Computers have bred a certain complacency in people,” Maki says. “Computers can do complex calculations, but they can’t do everything. You have to know what method of computation to use, how to enter the data, how to interpret the results.”

And then there’s math block, that deer-in-the-headlights feeling that many people experience at the very sight of numbers and symbols. Ng believes such resistance is a knee-jerk reaction to abstract thinking. MTC aims, he says, to motivate students to think abstractly and to address concrete problems.

“It’s a packaging of math, in a way,” says Ng. “By integrating math with other subjects, the students learn the techniques when they need them, and faculty can gear the courses to a specific area.” Discovering the math in everyday, familiar problems, according to Maki, takes much of the dread out of it.

Such integration requires a high degree of support from different areas of the university, and many IU faculty, deans, departments, chancellors, and administrators have collaborated with Maki and Ng.

Now hear this

One such faculty member is Diane Kewley-Port, professor of speech and hearing sciences at IU Bloomington. A member of the first MTC Steering Committee, she saw immediately the potential of field-specific math courses. In the fall of 1997, Kewley-Port, along with fellow speech and hearing professor David Eddins and mathematics education doctoral student Paul Kehle (now a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University), launched the course, Mathematical Foundations for Speech and Hearing Sciences.

Speech and hearing sciences brings together speech and language pathology with audiology. It’s hard to get a handle on either if you don’t understand the physics of sound. For instance, the behavior of sound waves as they travel from the vocal cords past the tongue, lips, and teeth—not to mention gum, candy, and a brace—is governed by physical laws. To introduce these ideas from physics, Kewley-Port, Eddins, and Kehle chose the popular Excel spreadsheet program. Using sound waves as their material, they presented their students with Fourier Analysis, a sophisticated concept for an introductory-level class. Kewley-Port acknowledges that it was a challenge for the students, but adds, “We were amazed at how they learned to write Fourier Transforms in their own words.”

Including math in other courses is not only a challenge for the students, observes Kewley-Port. “We knew that our colleagues and peers wouldn’t all have the skills to teach this, and might appreciate an introduction,” she says. So in June 2001 Kewley-Port and her colleagues organized a two-day workshop, “Problem Solving in the Speech and Hearing Sciences: Integrating Physics, Mathematics, and Technology,” for faculty from other universities. Topics included Fourier Analysis, vowel synthesis, probability in decision-making, and trigonometry. Feedback from the workshop was positive, and another one is planned for May 2002.

Eddins took the course to his new post at SUNY Buffalo, where he began teaching it in 2000. An interactive multimedia textbook based on the course, created by Eddins, Kewley-Port, and Kehle, is to be published this spring—the first of its kind. Kewley-Port sees the attitudes of students slowly changing. “I don’t think they realized how deeply they’d have to go into mathematical concepts,” she says. “But they appreciate having a direct link to the real world and being able to apply these methods to their own work.”

No escaping the numbers

When Maki approached the School of Journalism with a proposal to start a course on math and journalism, he found an enthusiast in Paul Voakes, professor of journalism. “We want our students not to be cowed by quantitative stories or sources,” says Voakes. “We used to send them to the psychology department or some other school that offers statistics courses. They’d come back claiming ignorance.”

Part of the problem was that such courses were not intended for journalism students. Another was an inherent complacency that Voakes sensed in his classes.

“We were allowing them to say ‘I’m a word person, don’t make me do math,’” he says. “I was a reporter for many years, and it’s obvious to anyone in the business that you can’t escape numbers.”

Voakes believes that his course, which he began teaching with mathematics professor Charles Livingston in 1999, is unique. For one thing, it’s more challenging than other statistics courses.

“It’s an elective, so students still opt for one of the courses in the other schools because word has gotten around that ours is harder,” says Voakes. “We have exercises like presenting a data set showing census figures on ethnic distribution in Indiana. They’re just figures in rows, with labels and a few footnotes. Their assignment is to look at the data, interpret and manipulate it, find an interesting story, and convey it to the average reader.”

Voakes admits that the math phobia among journalists is long-standing. “As a journalist in the mid-’70s I had colleagues who ran the other way when financial stories came up,” he recalls. “Whenever I show this course to professional journalists, they’re amazed and a little envious.”

And the students themselves? Enrollment is not as high as Voakes would like, but the course is winning converts, and enrollment is growing rapidly. “In course evaluations,” says Voakes, “we get comments like ‘I thought I’d hate it, but I learned a lot.’” If nothing else, learning the principles of math and statistics is a sound career move, now that business journalism has become a distinct field.

Voakes has watched his own children come to grips with mathematics in high school and is convinced that today’s high-school students have a better understanding of the subject than used to be the case. “And yet,” he says, “they go to journalism school thinking that math is some kind of elaborate hazing ritual in their past, and now they can get on with writing beautiful prose.” With courses like “Math and Journalism” waiting for them, students at IU Bloomington will find it harder to harbor such delusions in the future.

Mathematics and . . .

Mathematics has breached the walls of many other programs at IU, finding its way into about 25 courses around the IU system. The MTC project now includes close to 100 faculty. A few more examples:

So much for the clichéd view of the mathematician as a solitary figure. “There’s an image of mathematicians as loners,” Maki acknowledges, “but it’s a collaborative field. Communication is very important.”

“If nothing else,” adds Ng, “this is a good outreach program for math. Other faculty can see math professors at work and appreciate how hard it can be to communicate some of these mathematical concepts to a class.”

The future of MTC contains some obstacles, not the least of which is resources. The program entails a commitment of time, money, and materials during a time of budgetary constraints.

“I’d like to see more of these courses and in more permanent forms,” says Ng. “We made a big splash to begin with. Now the question is, How do you sustain momentum with limited resources?”

One way is through increased enrollment. Maki and Ng are pleased with the progress MTC has made, but hope that students will come in far greater numbers in the future. Most of the eight IU campuses have adopted courses through the program; the ultimate aim is 100 percent involvement.

Meanwhile, a picture emerges of the ideal IU graduate of the 21st century: communicative, adaptable, well-rounded—and fearless in the face of algebra. If the next generation learns to handle numbers, and the American workplace can look to them with confidence . . . well, you do the math.

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