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Math for Poets


by Jenny Wells, Whitney Hale

(Nov. 22, 2013) – A new University of Kentucky Core class sets out to prove that in fact you can use advanced mathematical applications to solve real world problems.

The goals of "Intro to Contemporary Mathematics," or MA 111, is to expose students to a variety of mathematical topics not typically seen in a traditional algebra-based math class, to encourage students to persist in solving problems and to develop an appreciation for the beauty of mathematical solutions, and to recognize the value of mathematics in solving a variety of practical problems in society and culture.

Martin Montgomery, a lecturer and the MA 111 course coordinator, describes how this isn't the typical math course that some students may fear and try to dodge at the collegiate level.

"It's an emphasis less on mathematics as students traditionally think of math — algebra, solving for x. We don't really actually do much in terms of complicated equations that students are used to, but we do deal with mathematical ideas. We analyze lots of arguments or scenarios based upon our mathematical experience and then we also try to communicate what's going on using mathematical notions and ideas."

To demonstrate how math can be used to examine almost any question, faculty teaching MA 111 show how math can be used to clarify and critically evaluate modern topics related to cryptography, graphing, compensation (sharing of resources) and even voting.

Wesley Hough, a primary MA 111 instructor and graduate student who affectionately refers to the course as "math for poets," really likes imparting how math concepts can apply to the real world.

"Math has this really nice way of describing the real world and encapsulating it in a really succinct way, in that you can capture these relationships that seam really abstract but they're not."

In addition to giving students another way to look at issues or conflicts, the faculty also hopes to show their classes that not every problem has a perfect solution.

"We want to expose them to advanced ideas and we sort of acknowledge that the mathematical process isn't always clean, it isn't always being able to put a box around a solution, that students are going to struggle with some ideas because they are important, they are difficult," Montgomery said. "Grit, it just gives them grittiness, you just have to persevere. It's about picking yourself up and dusting yourself off sometimes and keep trying. And the course allows you to do it, it doesn't demand perfection, math doesn't demand perfection."

Even the in-house homework system is set up to encourage students to develop skills that not only look for solutions, but then also analyze and communicate which is the best solution for a situation.

"Rather than being a static (system) where you input an answer and it tells you if you are right or wrong, we've developed questions that are much more open-ended and creative. As opposed to saying do this, show that this is the case, we ask them to just create an example that will have something happening. It forces them to actually take that analytical step and apply it in order to come up with an answer. And then we've designed it in such a way that even if they go in the wrong direction it should be giving  them clues as to why their answer is not fully correct and hopefully how they can analyze and reevaluate their answer and come up with a better answer," Montgomery said.

UK pre-integrated strategic communication freshman James Ranes, who particularly liked the compensation section of the class, backs up the course's claim to be a math class that the average person could use to address society's issues.

"My first impression of MA 111 is that it was extremely difficult, but as the semester progressed I started to get the hang of it. I could see this math being used a lot more in real world situations than any other math class I have taken."

The class even has Ranes thinking about taking a more algebra-based course in the future.

UK Core is the university's general education program, containing a set of requirements that must be completed by students of all majors in order to graduate. These requirements are focused on critical thinking, writing, reasoning, ethics and global understanding, which faculty of the university feel are essential for students to compete in the global marketplace.

The MA 111 class helps students fill a requirement for coursework in the area of quantitative reasoning, a conceptual process that employs one or more of a family of mathematical or logistical methods to analyze and solve problems in a variety of disciplines. Such methods guide both deductive and inductive reasoning in mathematics, the sciences, the humanities and arts, as well as in engineering, computer science and information technology.

Hough, who attended a small liberal arts college, sees the tremendous value MA III and the skills the other Core classes impart and is a proponent of general education courses.

"I think the mark of a good educated citizen is someone who is able to understand and appreciate all bodies of knowledge."