Saturday, January 05, 2008

Fish Tale

As I was pointing out to some family and friends over the holidays, my little Mathematical Canvas website, 4D Solutions a sponsor, has an embedded message on the cover page: Alaska. See it? I like the fish for its Tlingit appearance.

Here in the Silicon Forest, we see it as our responsibility to offer relevant curriculum of the kind future Silicon Foresters might need. As I was writing to a contact at Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster recently, regarding a proposed Skype interview:
Discussing the US picture as a whole might be too unfocused for me to speak intelligently about as there's no "national curriculum" and the state standards are little more than outlines cribbed from the various text books, with a minor role played by industry and commerce (private sector)....

My job in Portland is mostly to circumvent the standard obsolete curricula (any math with no programming would be considered too 20th century to remain viable or relevant).
Let's look at an example of what knowledge workers in my sector of the economy have to read to stay current:
Relational databases can be accessed using the Structured Query Language (SQL), and every popular programming language has libraries that allow manipulating data in relational database management systems (RDBMSs) such as Postgres, MySQL, MSSQL Server, and Oracle.

Not long after relational algebra was invented and the first RDBMSs started appearing, another similar rise from obscurity to market dominance took place. Procedural programming began to give way to object-oriented programming, which allowed the bundling of data and actions into objects. [page 152]

Rapid Web Applications with TurboGears: Using Python to Create Ajax-Powered Sites - Graphically Rich Book Rapid Web Applications with TurboGears: Using Python to Create Ajax-Powered Sites, by Mark Ramm, Kevin Dangoor, Gigi Sayfan (Prentice Hall, ISBN-10: 0-13-243388-5; ISBN-13: 978-0-13-243388-4)
Although the style is accessible to young adults, the content remains alien, unfamiliar, even though "algebra" is mentioned and "success in algebra" is considered a primary indicator of future success in college by much of the math teaching community.

The problem is mass textbook publishing, to remain economical, especially in this environment of rising paper and shipping costs, mostly needs to recycle previous content, adjusting it slightly from year to year, fine tuning, to keep up with the latest math teaching fads, which are often superficial, purely cosmetic.

Over the last two or three decades, this recycling of old content has precluded much true pioneering inventiveness at the K-12 level, to where college profs now do little more than throw up their hands and complain about their low caliber entry level students, in need of so much remedial course work.

Computer science goes begging for new majors.

The Silicon Forest ends up importing much of the talent it needs.

As a matter of fact, the traditional math curriculum contains many candidate segments that have the potential to become segues into our more relevant Digital Age content (relevant from the point of view of working in our Silicon Forest economy -- other bioregions may well have different needs).

For example, ever since the New Math in the 1960s, we've had segments on truth tables (boolean logic) and Venn Diagrams (unions and intersections). The former connects directly to logic gates, the basis of all computer chips, and the latter might be used to launch forays into SQL and the relational algebra mentioned above.

Unfortunately, the math teaching ethnicity (an ingrown subculture worthy of anthropological study) is pretty well stuck in the calculator era, just a step beyond slide rules, and calculators don't do SQL.

Switching to a language like Python for hands-on math exploration is just too much future shock for most rank and file math teachers, already set in their ways. Plus the NCTM tends to baby them by telling them just what they want to hear, no matter how head in the sand this might be.

Fortunately, given the Internet and North America's mostly wired schools, a burgeoning home scholar movement, circumventing yesteryear's dino textbooks has become mindlessly easy, a piece of cake. MIT's OpenCourseWare, other flagship offerings, provide plenty of raw material.

A new breed of more progressive teacher is emerging, more of a hybrid between web wrangler and classroom presenter (itself a type of theater, with the faculty lounge a backstage).

These mostly younger teachers, some of them returning war veterans, understand about letting students multi-task, don't feel so threatened when all eyes are not on the authority figure at the front of the room, are maybe focused on Google Earth instead.