Getting students to be quantitatively literate

One of the main aims in teaching a Math for Liberal Arts course is to get students to have a better appreciation of general mathematics. And what better way to do that than to have them read math articles or blogs aimed at a general audience? Sounds like a good plan, but I needed to make it a graded assignment so it would get done.

In my online course I am now making up questions related to articles in Steven Strogatz’s NY Times blog. Steven Strogatz is a mathematics professor at Cornell University. He makes basic math so clear and brings in so many connections that anyone who reads it will get something out of it, no matter what their education level is. Using his post on algebra, I asked my students the following as part of a longer homework assignment:

Suppose the length of a hallway is y when measured in yards, and f when measured in feet.  Write an equation that relates y to f.

I gave them the wrong answer of y=3f and asked them to figure out why it’s incorrect. Not exactly rocket science, but having them read something about math other than what’s in a textbook is a big thing for many of my students. When we get to the probability and stats part later in the semester, I plan to do something similar with the abcnews.com articles by John Allen Paulos, math professor at Temple University. These articles are not as direct as Strogatz’s, but do aim at probabilistic understanding for a general audience.

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