URI math professors & students find Internet adds to education

KINGSTON, R.I. — March 31, 1999 — Three URI mathematicians are part of the revolution that is radically changing the way math is being taught, and they aren’t hearing math anxiety complaints from their troops—the students. In fact, URI Professors Dean Clark of Westerly, Barbara Kaskosz of Wakefield, and Lewis Pakula of the East Side of Providence are helping to lead the charge. Their “weapon” is the Internet. The three are incorporating powerful mathematical software packages, Maple and Mathview, into the curriculum. Using this software, the three faculty members have written course programs that illuminate what math means and how it can be applied. “You can’t find stuff like this at other Internet sites. It’s unique to URI,” says Clark who has searched other colleges’ math Web pages and found nothing comparable. “The Internet is a new tool,” says Kaskosz “but there is a tendency to do the same old thing. We’re using Maple in a more creative and accessible way. It gives students more insight into what the problems mean.” Pakula agrees, noting that technology is changing math and science instruction. Software is rivaling textbooks. Now even the most complex calculations whose algebraic and graphical difficulties were once considered too great to be done “by hand” can be completed by computer software within seconds. “We can present more sophisticated problems and concentrate on the bigger picture,” he says. The problems in Clark’s course are genuinely puzzling. An avid puzzle enthusiast and graphic designer, Clark has developed an interactive Web site (www.uri.edu/artsci/mth/w108) that is colorful, clever and, well, fun. Using the commercial MathView software, Clark created the interactive designs while his undergraduate assistant Mike Smith built the site. (See sidebar story on Smith.) The site challenges students to do such tasks as design a slot machine, figure out card shuffling tricks, and open a diabolical combination lock. “The students are using analytical skills with symbolic algebra,” says Clark who teaches Math 108, a general education course designed for students who have no specialized knowledge of math. On the other hand, Barbara Kaskosz and Lewis Pakula use Maple, a research-level program, to design a series of interactive worksheets for calculus. Worksheets can be downloaded via the Internet from the Mathematics Department’s Web site. Maple, with its great facilities for graphics and visualization, enlivens the courses and prepares the students for the new educational and workplace conditions in this era of rapid technological change. So far, nearly 600 calculus students have participated in the project. The three professors say the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “The students know they need to know the technology. It’s a new world and they have to keep pace,” says Pakula. “Besides, many of our undergraduate students already have been using computers for 10 years or more. They’re comfortable at the computer keyboard.” URI’s Mathematics Department Web site address is www.math.uri.edu. For More Information: Dean Clark, 874-4457 Barbara Kaskosz, 874-4445 Lewis Pakula, 874-4436 Jan Sawyer, 874-2116