2002 Archive‎ > ‎

Vol. 3, No. 38 - 19 December 2002


This is the final issue of COMET until Spring Semester 2003. Best wishes for a holiday season filled with much happiness. 2003 promises to be a "prime" year!


ARTICLES & ANNOUNCEMENTS (CALIFORNIA FOCUS)

"Pilot Program Offers Hope To Kids For Math Lessons" by Kara Shire

Source: Contra Costa Times - 5 December 2002

URL:  http://nl3.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?s_hidethis=yes&p_product=UW&p_theme=uw&p_action=search&p_maxdocs=200&s_dispstring=20021209038405&p_field_advanced-0=&p_text_advanced-0=("20021209038405")&p_perpage=10&p_sort=YMD_date:D&xcal_useweights=no

Mujahidun Sumchai has never seen a group of eighth-graders this excited about algebra. Two times a week they file into his third-floor classroom at Adams Middle School, and before you know it they're at work solving word problems, figuring algebraic equations, talking to each other about math.

"The difference is the computers," Sumchai said. "I had a student who had given up. She's now one of the best in the class."

Blame this so-called "mathematics revolution" on a new fleet of wireless laptops.

For kids, computers can become beacons in the long, dark night of endless book reports and hours upon hours of teacher lectures. They will gladly work on math, if only so they can do it with the help of a mouse...

The technology may be what's grabbing students, but the pilot algebra program at work in Adams' eighth-grade classrooms is about more than electronics. The software, called the Cognitive Tutor, is a curriculum developed by Carnegie Learning that aims to stimulate student thinking.

Rather than talking at students, the software interacts with them, coaches them and, when they need it, offers tips to help them find the right answer. "This engages them in a way a book cannot," Sumchai said.

There are bar charts that tell each student how proficient he or she is in certain math skills -- small numbers, graphs, written expressions -- and students work at the computers individually, at their own pace.

"This is an interesting program because it tracks the kids' progress," said Path Ruthnick, a project assistant at Adams. "It will track how many times they ask (the computer) for help, and how long it takes them to solve the problem."

The six-week-old program already has teachers anticipating a huge jump in math test scores. But the Cognitive Tutor is not perfect. In one recent class, some students played with screensavers rather than working on math. And the curriculum is not on the state-approved list for math materials.

Still, the $80,000 pilot project, paid for with school grant dollars, fits neatly into the districtwide push to teach algebra in middle schools.

The goal is to get students into advanced math classes in their high school years and boost the district's paltry passing rates on the state's High School Exit Exam, which students will soon need to pass before they can earn a diploma.

If Adams sees improved algebra scores among its eighth-graders over the next two to three years, the Cognitive Tutor could end up in classrooms throughout the West Contra Costa school district.

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Related article:

" Educational Software Finds Itself at Back of Class for Kids' Attention" by Alex Pham

Source:  Los Angeles Times - 16 December 2002

URL: http://www.latimes.com/business/printedition/la-fi-kids16dec16001439,0,6922689.story?coll=la%2Dheadlines%2Dpe%2Dbusiness


ARTICLES & ANNOUNCEMENTS (NATIONAL FOCUS)

(1) "The Inner Einstein" by Thomas Hayden

Source:  U.S. News and World Report - 9 December 2002

URL:  http://nl3.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?s_hidethis=yes&p_product=UW&p_theme=uw&p_action=search&p_maxdocs=200&s_dispstring=20021209038405&p_field_advanced-0=&p_text_advanced-0=("20021209038405")&p_perpage=10&p_sort=YMD_date:D&xcal_useweights=no

...Nearly 50 years after his death and a century after the then unknown physicist started challenging doctrine and stretching brains with his ideas, Albert Einstein remains not just scientifically relevant but a multipurpose icon as well. If anything, his stature has grown over the decades, fed by a steady stream of books, pop-culture references, and posthumous appearances in commercials and on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and most anything else that will sit still long enough to be stamped with a photo and a quote. The lionized Einstein cuts a comforting figure: a gentle genius, as benevolent as he was intelligent... almost a scientific Santa. But the more we see that image, the less we seem to know about the real Einstein and the work that made him famous.

Thanks in large measure to an ambitious publishing effort, a much more nuanced view of the greatest scientist of the 20th century is taking shape. The Einstein Papers Project, now in its eighth volume, will ultimately publish some 14,000 original documents in a planned 25 volumes. Already, early drafts of famous papers are allowing historians to track the development of his ideasÆhe didn't pluck them fully formed from the cosmos after allÆand his voluminous correspondence reveals (surprise!) a real human being. There's plenty of wit and charm here, along with courage and a deep sense of social justice. But far from being a saint, he could also be acerbic, rebellious, even something of a rake. As a powerful new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York shows, the Einstein that emerges is at once darker, richer, and infinitely more fascinating than the friendly icon we thought we knew... 

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Related articles:

"Einstein Did More Than Dream Up Theories: The Thinker Was A Tinkerer Too" URL: http://nl9.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?s_hidethis=yes&p_product=UW&p_theme=uw&p_action=search&p_maxdocs=200&s_dispstring=20021209038406&p_field_advanced-0=&p_text_advanced-0=("20021209038406")&p_perpage=10&p_sort=YMD_date:D&xcal_useweights=no

"Einstein's Pacifism Did Not Stop Him From Urging Research on the Atomic Bomb"  URL: http://nl9.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?s_hidethis=yes&p_product=UW&p_theme=uw&p_action=search&p_maxdocs=200&s_dispstring=20021209038407&p_field_advanced-0=&p_text_advanced-0=("20021209038407")&p_perpage=10&p_sort=YMD_date:D&xcal_useweights=no

(2) Items of Interest to Precollegiate Mathematics Students from MAA

Source: Mathematical Association of America

URL: http://www.maa.org/students/students_index.html

Summer Programs

* Junior Summer Math Camp (http://www.swt.edu/mathworks/student/JSMC/JSMC.html): The SWT Junior Summer Math Camp is a multi-level program for students in grades 4-8 and held on June 2-12, 2003, at Southwest Texas State University. From a first-year program that introduces students to beginning concepts in algebra through play-acting and drama (dramathics), to a more advanced program in problem solving and discrete math, students enjoy exploring problems together and sharing in the excitement of mathematical exploration and discovery.

* MathPath (http://www.mathpath.org/): A four-week summer program for middle school students showing high promise in mathematics. The program will be held on the campus of Black Hills State University, Spearfish, SD (located near the Mount Rushmore National Monument) from June 29-July 27, 2003.

* Mathcamp (http://www.mathcamp.org/): This 5-week summer program for mathematically talented high school students from around the world is held on different campuses in the USA or Canada. Mathcamp 2003 will be held from July 6 to August 10 on the campus of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.

* SWT Honors Summer Math Camp (http://www.swt.edu/mathworks/): An intensive summer program for outstanding high school students; held at Southwest Texas State University from June 15-July 26, 2003.

Resources and Competitions

* American Mathematics Competitions (AMC) (http://www.unl.edu/amc/): AMC seeks to increase interest in mathematics and to develop problem solving ability through a series of friendly mathematics competitions for junior/middle and senior high school students (grades 7 through 12).

* Mandelbrot Competition (http://www.mandelbrot.org/): Introduces high school students of all ability levels to new topics in mathematics. Individual and team entries.

* Mathcounts (http://www.mathcounts.org/): A coaching and competition program for middle school students throughout the nation.  

* U.S.A. Mathematical Talent Search (USAMTS) (http://www.nsa.gov/programs/mepp/usamts.html): A free mathematics competition open to all high school students in the United States

(3)  "Crunching the Numbers" by Lev Grossman

Source:  TIME - 16 December 2002

URL: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101021223-400000,00.html

Every year, on the first Saturday in December, 2500 of the most brilliant college students in North America take what may be the hardest math test in the world. How tough is it? Although there are only 12 questions, the test lasts six hours. And although these are the best and brainiest young minds our country has to offer, the median score on last year's test was 1 point. Out of a possible 120.

Welcome to the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, which was administered for the 63rd time in its grueling history on Dec. 7. The Putnam is arguably the most prestigious math contest in the world. It's also a rite of passage for math cognoscenti--think of it as a coming-out party for the next generation of beautiful minds. Do well, and you'll earn the envy of your peers and the inside track on a future Nobel. Do badly and--well, don't feel too bad. John Nash took the test twice and never scored among the top five.

The Putnam Competition was originally proposed by a Boston lawyer named William Lowell Putnam as a friendly intercollegiate math competition, and it was first held in 1938 (bragging rights that year went to the University of Toronto). Each year a three-professor committee spends four or five months devising the 12 problems, which are arranged in order of increasing difficulty. It's an all-day affair: two three-hour sessions with a two-hour break. No calculators, no notes, no mercy. "There certainly is a mystique surrounding the exam," says Ravi Vakil, co-author of a book about the exam. "I think awe, respect and terror all apply."

Students compete both individually and as teams representing their colleges. The top five individual finishers, designated Putnam Fellows, get $2,500 each; the top teams get larger cash prizes: $25,000 for first place. As for the rest, the names and rankings of the top 500 scorers are circulated on a list that's released in March and eagerly perused by the math elite--a social register for the aristocracy of arithmetic. "Grading is quite strict," says Professor Richard Stanley, who coaches M.I.T.'s team. Partial credit is rare. Out of 2,954 students who took the test last year, only 50 got 50% or better.

So what does it take to ace the Putnam? It's not about memorizing theorems. "The Putnam does not try to measure mathematical knowledge," says Leonard Klosinski, director of the competition and a professor of math at Santa Clara University in California. "What it does test is the ability to solve very challenging problems in a fixed period of time. Students who do well are mathematically gifted, very quick and highly creative." The past winners aren't exactly household names--unless you live in an extremely enlightened household--but they include Richard Feynman and Kenneth Wilson, two Nobel prizewinners. Three Putnam winners have won the Fields Medal, the highest honor a mathematician can receive.

There's a lot at stake. A high score on the Putnam can fast-track a young mathematician's career, and a team win can put a math department on the map. Currently, Harvard is at the tail end of a dynasty of Michael Jordanian proportions, with 13 first-place finishes since 1985. At one point, Harvard teams went 8-0. "Once Harvard began its roll, the most talented high school students in the U.S. started to overwhelmingly choose to go to Harvard," says Vakil. "As a result, the undergraduate math program at Harvard has become the hardest in the country, and perhaps the world."

Not everybody in the math community believes in the Putnam as an augur of future greatness. "Many think it's a frivolous exercise," says Kevin Lacker, one of last year's winners. "Doing well on the Putnam and doing good math research are two different tasks that take two different kinds of intelligence." In other words, there's hope for us all. Even a genius can flunk a math test--and sometimes that's a good thing. "If you're someone who only likes getting 100% on everything you do, you're going to find the Putnam quite distressing," Vakil says philosophically. "But then again, in both life and in research mathematics, you'll have to deal with problems that you can't solve."

(4) "Work in 'Chaos' Theory Earns Honor for UM Mathematician" by Frank D. Roylance

Source:  The Baltimore Sun - 18 December 2002

URLhttp://www.sunspot.net/news/education/bal-te.md.prize18dec18,0,196786.story?coll=bal%2Deducation%2Dcollege

A former colleague once introduced University of Maryland mathematician James A. Yorke as "the man who brought chaos to mathematics."

It wasn't a criticism. Yesterday it was announced that Yorke will share the 2003 Japan Prize in science and technology for his pioneering work in the relatively young mathematical field of "chaos" theory.

His theoretical research, and that of his multidisciplinary Chaos Group at Maryland's Institute for Physical Science and Technology, is now being used to illuminate complex real-world problems as diverse as infectious disease transmission, weather forecasting and population changes in biological systems.

The Japan Prize, announced yesterday in Tokyo, carries a $412,000 cash award. It is also an international honor highly regarded by scientists, who rank it just below the Nobel Prize and the Fields Medal in mathematics...

"It was a total surprise," Yorke said of the news that he had won. "A Spanish physicist had told me he was nominating me, and I told him not to bother. I didn't think I had a prayer."

Yorke said he plans to ask the Japan Prize foundation to give a third of his share of the cash prize to the University of Maryland, to seed further research...

Yorke, 61, of Columbia, will share the honor (and split the cash) with Yale mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who is being honored for his work in the study of fractals, complex natural shapes that repeat themselves at different scales.

Two Japan Prizes are awarded each year in diverse fields. The second for 2003 was given for "visualizing techniques in medicine." It will go to Japanese scientist Seiji Ogawa, for his groundbreaking work in functional magnetic resonance imaging, now used widely in medical research and diagnosis...

"The Japanese are rather disappointed this [award] isn't better known. It's their own Nobel Prize," said Bill Blandpied, who until this year directed the National Science Foundation's Tokyo office. "Among scientists it is very highly prized, very prestigious, and they [the Japanese] make a big show of it."

This year's honorees will receive their awards in April at elaborate ceremonies in Tokyo. The Japanese emperor and empress, the prime minister, other national leaders, diplomats and previous winners are expected to attend.

Japan Prize laureates are selected each December by the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan for work that has "advanced the frontiers of knowledge and served the cause of peace and prosperity for mankind"...

Yorke and Mandelbrot were honored for their work in the "science and technology of complexity."

"The world we live in is so complex that it is an enormous challenge to understand the fundamental nature of its complexities," the selection committee said. Yorke and Mandelbrot "have provided new frameworks for understanding complex phenomena, and have defined both their foundations and their applications."

Northwestern University math professor John Franks said scientists once presumed the natural world was "deterministic"--that is, predictable once you had the formulas to describe it. Planetary motions, for example, are predictable.

When they saw randomness, they assumed it was the result of a flawed experiment. "The insight for which Yorke is substantially responsible is that this is not the case," Franks said.

Chaos theory attempts to describe "nonlinear" phenomena--those in which small changes, or differences in initial conditions, lead quickly to large differences and seemingly random and unpredictable consequences, such as the weather and the stock markets.

Such systems began to get attention a century ago. But their importance was not appreciated until digital computers became capable of simulating and demonstrating their behavior. Yorke coined the use of the term chaos to describe such systems in a paper written in 1975 with T.Y. Li...

Yorke's Chaos Group is working with the National Weather Service to improve the performance of computer forecast models, which start with similar assumptions but rapidly diverge. His team is looking for ways to check the models' performance against newly observed weather data. The conditions assumed by the least-accurate models can then be recalibrated to drag them back into alignment with the best, narrowing the forecast error.

Yorke's group is also using what it has learned about complex and chaotic systems to improve predictions for the spread of infectious diseases, such as AIDS, and to increase the efficiency of the decoding of the human genome.

"We're just looking for fascinating problems," he said.

James C. Alexander, chairman of the math department at Case Western Reserve University, once worked with Yorke at Maryland. He said Yorke's multidisciplinary Chaos Group "has a national and international reputation as a place where interesting science is done."

"He's generated an enormous number of ideas," Alexander said. "A lot of these ideas come from bouncing ideas back and forth with people, so they get involved"...



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