College Math Teaching

August 4, 2012

Day 2, Madison MAA Mathfest

The day started with a talk by Karen King from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
I usually find math education talks to be dreadful, but this one was pretty good.

The talk was about the importance of future math teachers (K-12) actually having some math background. However, she pointed out that students just having passed math courses didn’t imply that they understood the mathematical issues that they would be teaching…and it didn’t imply that their students would do better.

She gave an example: about half of those seeking to teach high school math couldn’t explain why “division by zero” was undefined! They knew that it was undefined but couldn’t explain why. I found that astonishing since I knew that in high school.

Later, she pointed out that potential teachers with a math degree didn’t understand what the issues were in defining a number like 2^{\pi} . Of course, a proper definition of this concept requires at least limits or at least a rigorous definition of the log function and she was well aware that the vast majority of high school students aren’t ready for such things. Still, the instructor should be; as she said “we all wave our hands from time to time, but WE should know when we are waving our hands.”

She stressed that we need to get future math teachers to get into the habit (she stressed the word: “habit”) of always asking themselves “why is this true” or “why is it defined in this manner”; too many of our math major courses are rule bound, and at times we write our exams in ways that reward memorization only.

Next, Bernd Sturmfels gave the second talk in his series; this was called Convex Algebraic Geometry.

You can see some of the material here. He also lead this into the concept of “Semidefinite programming”.

The best I can tell: one looks at the objects studied by algebraic geometers (root sets of polynomials of several variables) and then takes a “affine slice” of these objects.

One example: the “n-ellipse” is the set of points on the plane that satisfy \sum^m_{k=1} \sqrt{(x-u_k)^2 + (y-v_k)^2} = d where (u_k, v_k) are points in the plane.

Questions: what is the degree of the polynomial that describes the ellipse? What happens if we let d tend to zero? What is the smallest d for which the ellipse is non-vanishing (Fermat-Webber point)? Note: the 2 ellipse is the circle, the 3 ellipse (degree 8) is what we usually think of as an ellipse.

Note: these type of surfaces can be realized as the determinant of a symmetric matrix; these matrices have real eigenvalues. We can plot curves over which an eigenvalue goes to zero and then changes sign. This process leads to what is known as a spectrahedron ; this is a type of shape in space. A polyhedron can be thought of as the spectrahedron of a diagonal matrix.

Then one can seek to optimize a linear function over a spectrahedron; this leads to semidefinite programming, which, in general, is roughly as difficult as linear programming.

One use: some global optimization problems can be reduced to a semidefinite programming problem (not all).

Shorter Talks
There was a talk by Bob Palais which discussed the role of Rodrigues in the discovery of the quaternions. The idea is that Rodrigues discovered the quaternions before Hamilton did; but he talked about these in terms of rotations in space.

There were a few talks about geometry and how to introduce concepts to students; of particular interest was the concept of a geodesic. Ruth Berger talked about the “fish swimming in jello” model: basically suppose you had a sea of jello where the jello’s density was determined by its depth with the most dense jello (turning to infinite density) at the bottom; and it took less energy for the fish to swim in the less dense regions. Then if a fish wanted to swim between two points, what path would it take? The geometry induced by these geodesics results in the upper half plane model for hyperbolic space.

Nick Scoville gave a talk about discrete Morse theory. Here is a user’s guide. The idea: take a simplicial complex and assign numbers (integers) to the points, segments, triangles, etc. The assignment has to follow rules; basically the boundary of a complex has to have a lower number that what it bounds (with one exception….) and such an assignment leads to a Morse function. Critical sets can be defined and the various Betti numbers can be calculated.

Christopher Frayer then talked about the geometry of cubic polynomials. This is more interesting than it sounds.
Think about this: remember Rolles Theorem from calculus? There is an analogue of this in complex variables called the Guass-Lucas Theorem. Basically, the roots of the derivative lie in the convex hull of the roots of the polynomial. Then there is Marden’s Theorem for polynomials of degree 3. One can talk about polynomials that have a root of z = 1 and two other roots in the unit circle; then one can study where the the roots of the derivative lie. For a certain class of these polynomials, there is a dead circle tangent to the unit circle at 1 which encloses no roots of the derivative.

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