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Student writing: Mathematics and the material universe

Posted by Arjendu on December 16, 2007

The week finished quietly enough. Part of the hands-on aspect of the writing workshop was to create a writing assignment which involved writing with numbers (or equivalent). I wanted, as noted a couple of days ago, to create one that answered the question: “How do I ask students to write so that they understand that the story of the material universe is written in mathematics, and quantitatively verified to be so?”

I came up with the following (draft version, to be polished for the actual assignment):

“You are making a presentation to some prospective Carleton students. Like you, these students are very math and science phobic. One of the reasons they are unsure about coming to Carleton is that they are concerned about the requirement of taking 18 credits in the sciences. They talk to you about this Physics course and think that it is fine to learn about what you have studied, but don’t understand why any mathematics is used in the course (other than ‘that’s what physicists do’).

Having taken this course, you know that mathematical thinking is a critical part of understanding the material universe. In 2-3 pages try to convince the prospies of this. Base your argument on our discussion, for example, of the transition in our understanding of planetary motion from data (Tycho Brahe), to its summary in phenomenological equations (Kepler) to a physical explanation (Newton’s Laws). Describe the mathematics we worked through: do not use equations, but only words to communicate the mathematics involved. This is not a formal piece, but a personal argument.

Grading rubric: Content, getting the mathematics right. Meta: Understanding the connection between the mathematics and the physics. Rhetorical: How this was integrated into a persuasive argument.”

It is reasonably well-understood, I gather, that getting students to argue for (or against, for that matter) something strengthens their understanding of the issues, and helps them integrate it into their world-view. I want students to ‘own’ this idea, in short. I don’t know what I feel about this assignment yet, but I got useful feedback from those colleagues who were sitting at my table, and some others. In general, since these workshops are really about hanging out with smart and fun people to talk about ideas of mutual interest, I had a good time.

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