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Dominic Mhiripiri '12: How do I love thee, o math at Brown?

Unpredictable as they may have been, a few of the greatest feuds in recorded history occurred safely outside the realm of ancient Roman wars or the hard-line rhetorical exchanges of the Cold War. Science and mathematics, long regarded as essential learning for the most gifted in society (and somewhat rightly so), have provided many epic conflicts worthy of mention.

From Galileo's 17th-century celestial argument with the Papacy, to the long, winding history of the value of the pi constant, to the contentious bid to reconcile Newtonian mechanics with Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, science and math have not failed to provide history with some mind-blowing clashes and struggles.

The reason why these past difficulties and conflicts own a cherished place in history is that the main actors in them had great passion and love for their work. They submitted their minds and souls to not just the rigor of their disciplines, but also to the artistic and creative aspects thereof.

The same mind-blowing engagement and beauty that should come with learning mathematics is painfully absent in a great number of math classes offered at Brown. It's sad that a discipline of such immense historical magnitude and real-life importance is often delivered by half-willing, half-inspired individuals to classes populated by young, sharp minds whose ambitions brought them from everywhere between Alabama and Zimbabwe.

Negative complexes of the "I-hate-math, Orgo-is-hard" persuasion are replete in many students. Rather than perpetuate them with their dry and lifeless lectures, educators have the responsibility to dispel them. A confident teacher who colors his lectures with engagement, energy and something that resembles a clearly audible accent (I feel this one, based on personal experience) will solicit the best performances from his or her students. Many math classes at Brown are mere one-man live performances in which text, numbers and lines are transported from confusing textbooks directly to Barus and Holley blackboards.

Some Brown students do not attend math lectures regularly. Apart from the vain and empty "feel good" factor of actually sitting through a lecture and scribbling something in a notebook (this is not always the case), numerous lectures are plain useless. Not only is there very little new material from what is already in the textbooks and few examples individually and critically analyzed, but whatever parts of the students' brains that are responsible for "learning something" often remain untouched by the end of class. There is no sink-in accumulation of new knowledge (even though the material remains foreign to students).

A few of the students I have talked to about their experiences with learning math at Brown cited a few challenges they faced. The highest common factor was definitely a lack of satisfaction with the level of engagement and interest in class and TA office hours. Apart from that, students often find it more difficult to seek assistance — a somewhat ignominious insecurity lies with "always asking for help" — even when they are sure they do not grasp all the material in the fast-paced lectures. According to these assertions, these challenges would be alleviated if teachers would be more engaging and therefore more approachable.

That math classes are of extreme importance to Brown students is unquestionable. Those who are concentrating in economics and physical sciences are required to take, at the very least, some foundational calculus classes. Meanwhile, in the pursuit of a strong and comprehensive liberal arts education, many branch out from their humanities concentrations and take a math class or two.

Creating a livelier experience in the math classroom is not an easy task. Many of the educators across the spectrum widely accused of making sleep therapy sessions out of their lectures (yes, some are that lifeless) are extremely talented individuals and leaders in research. Brown could create room for more solid student feedback and make that feedback critical for assigning teaching positions within the two math departments.

The University should also expand its resources. The Math Resource Center should be open for more than just the two hours between 8 and 10 p.m. — for at least twice as long.

The new state-of-the-art Science Center in the Sciences Library should harbor ambitions of expanding twofold and annexing another floor in the near future. This would allow for the addition of more subject-specific resources focused on finding creative, alternative ways for learning class material and solving problems. The WiSE and math DUG resources should also expand, not just to include non-math concentrators, but also to foster increased creativity in the learning of science and math.

Brown students should not have to turn to MIT's OpenCourseWare for help with their math classes. But the University itself can learn a lesson from this innovative program and invest more in increasing engagement in the classroom and outside of it ... beginning with mathematics.

Dominic Mhiripiri '12 is pretty sure this one will score approximately zero on the Adrenaline-Controversy scale. He can be reached at dominic_mhiripiri at brown.edu


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