Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The 830 at PCMI

PCMI is a 3 week program; each day from about 830 to 1040 we have what can best be described as a math class. But it's unlike any math class most people have ever had.
Each day starts with its own problem set designed by the class' organizers, folks from the Education Development Center and Harvey Mudd College. The problem set is well structured, beginning with a simple idea or concept and then continually developing in both depth and breadth, although this may be obvious only several days later. The questions are also in categories: Important (things you'll need to know for upcoming days), Neat and Tough (can be really tough! Clay Prize tough!) -- we aim to get through at least the important stuff in our morning together.
The classroom is composed of 12 tables of 5-6 people each (we do have guests from the other programs) and as a table we tend to worth through things together; there's a table sandbox monitor who is there to ensure that the teachers exercise all those collaborative skills they try to encourage with their students. Not only that, but we never tell people ideas, we create a situation in which they can they discover it themselves. This is not easy and like any skill takes practice and continual reinforcement. It is at the heart of the whole morning class (indeed, of PCMI) and the mathematics could almost be the motivation for appreciating this whole process. It's why I call them "organizers" above and not teachers -- it's not instruction as you know it.
The math is very accessible and very deep - low threshold, high ceiling - and it is too easy to look at it only superficially. Teachers will occasionally race through the questions to get them done (remind you of any students?) and will miss out on the complexity of the mathematics. I remember my first year doing the same thing.
As one of the participants said "I've taken courses in number theory but never understood prime numbers until now." This has been true for every topic I've encountered at PCMI -- teachers seldom get the chance to think deeply of simple things that Al Cuoco of EDC, and one of the course's authors, encourages.
If you visit PCMI @ the Math Forum you can click on Class Notes to read over the problem sets from previous years. Or, to get a very insufficient glimpse of the questions, the MAA has a book of Al's work Mathematical Connections that includes material we've looked at during PCMI. It's condensed (remember, we get three weeks) and doesn't have the same level of personalization that our questions set have -- the authors adapt the problem sets from day-to-day to build off of our ideas, suggestions, questions & comments.
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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Precursor to PCMI


I've had the opportunity to come early to Park City and help set things up: there's actually a lot of infrastructure to put in to place. With (at least) 7 different groups running simultaneously around the conference centre, there's the usual classroom/lecture facilities to complete but nowadays we add on a considerable amount of technology: LCD projectors, wireless & wired networks, speaker systems, the typical. And, because we're mathematicians... a lot of chalk boards and coloured chalk. Lots. And old school overhead projectors.
But in the teacher room, because we've got at least 60 participants spread across 12 tables, we have a desk-based microphone/speaker system so that they can hear each other across the room, two Mimio electronic whiteboards (an excellent alternative to Smartboards!) tied into an ELMO document camera and three LCD projectors and, because we break this large room up into three smaller rooms, the need to have it all work as a common space and as separate rooms. Lots of cabling criss-crossing the room that has to be taped down.
So that's my first week - the participants all start to arrive on Sunday. I'm lucky that there are a number of returning folk along with the rest of the staff; it's good to see old friends! Most folks have the chance to come back for a second year -- and if you come back for a third you're conscripted to help out working with the new teachers.
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Friday, July 24, 2009

Going back six weeks...

So the end of school was a bit of a flurry and I left meetings early to head out to Park City, Utah (home of the Sundance Film Festival) to participate in the Park City Mathematics Institute for the seventh time. If you're a math teacher and never been... you're missing out!
I first attended PCMI in 2002 -- by pure luck. I was teaching Ontario's Linear Algebra course and stumbled across their webpage which discussed that summer's topic, Gaussian Integers. I cross my fingers & applied. After attending as a participant for two years I got invited back to help out as staff. It's a lot of work and I don't get all the fun that participants have but I learn about math and teaching and learning in a different way. And I get to work some amazing people, both staff and participants, and great friends.
PCMI is hard to describe. I call it "math camp" when asked just to make things easier. Let me try to be more descriptive since I have the time: PCMI is a three week residential program that has about 60 teachers participate in daily 2.5 hour problem solving sessions that build around a topic, an hour of pedagogy, a 2 hour small working group session in the afternoon on a topic specific to the teacher's classes and a variety of afternoon and evening sessions, lectures and activities on recreational or research mathematics.
While the teachers are doing their thing, there are also about 250 undergraduates, graduate students, university faculty and research mathematicians doing their own courses & lectures on a specific theme, usually tangentially related to the teacher's morning problem solving topic. For example, this year's topic was L-functions -- this is a cutting edge area in number theory (and is the hot new thing in cryptography). Next year, it's image processing. The addition of all these "real" mathematicians running around (and these are sharp folk... Clay Scholars, Fields Medal winners, Nobel laureates -there's no math Nobel but sometimes the topics cross science/economics boundaries) lifts the matheamatical conversation and is an important reminder that math is continually developing... and is crucial to both our day-to-day life and to our future. Plus all these smart folks reminds me what it's like to be a student in my class...
The applications come out in the fall... if you're a math teacher, you should apply. Three weeks is a long time but the Park City area is beautiful, the PCMI teacher community is amazingly supportive and the math is a lot of fun.
Over the next couple of weeks I'll describe what went on this summer at PCMI. I did twitter throughout so feel free to Twitter Search but I didn't have time to blog.
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