- "history can be a motivating factor for students in their learning and study of mathematics by, for instance, helping to sustain the students’ interest and excitement in the subject"
- "a historical approach may give mathematics a more human face and, perhaps, make it less frightening"
- students may be comforted by knowing "the same mathematical concept that they themselves are now having trouble grasping actually took great mathematicians hundreds of years to shape into its final form"
- "history can improve learning and teaching by providing a different point of view or mode of presentation"
- "history 'can help us look through the eyes of the students'"

I find a number of these arguments compelling. In particular, I've noticed that providing historical connections provides context and gets students engaged in material.

For instance, the disputes between Newton and Leibniz regarding the credit for developing the Calculus are well-known; however, there is also a fantastic story of a feud between Descartes and Fermat that can be found in George Simmon's Calculus Gems: Brief Lives and Memorable Mathematics:

Before the development of the Calculus, Fermat has developed a method of finding tangents. "When the famous philosopher [Descartes] was informed of Fermat's method by Merseene, he attacked its generality, challenged Fermat to find the tangent to the curve

I incorporate this story into the lecture on implicit differentiation in a single-variable Calculus course, posing the challenge of Descartes: find the tangent line to the curve (called the 'folium of Descares') at an arbitrary point. It presents the need to develop a method of differentiation to solve such problems, which motivates us to develop implicit differentiation in order to save our honor and make Descartes "intensely irritated".

There are a number of other excellent historical accounts that I've found to have great value, such as the historical development of finding the volume of the sphere in a multivariable calculus course (noting Archimedes' insights and the very clever Cavalieri's principle). Many excellent books (such as

Below is an example taken from a vector calculus book's section on level sets:

While I appreciate the simplicity of the model, I'm left unsatisfied with it merely hinting at topographical maps.

Fortunately, more than enough real data is readily available online. For instance, TopoQuest has topographical data for most of the United States. Here's a map I shared with my class of Texas' highest point, Guadalupe Peak.

Fortunately, more than enough real data is readily available online. For instance, TopoQuest has topographical data for most of the United States. Here's a map I shared with my class of Texas' highest point, Guadalupe Peak.

But why limit ourselves to mountain climbing?

Here's a write-up on a method for combining data with Google Maps. In particular, data from the Houston Police Department was used to create a countour map of violent crime in Houston:

Here's a write-up on a method for combining data with Google Maps. In particular, data from the Houston Police Department was used to create a countour map of violent crime in Houston:

I've found incorporating real data into the classroom to be an effective way of engaging students in the material. Especially data that is local. Our campus is located in downtown Houston.

Thus this is more than just a contrived example. Students become invested when they see how the material they're studying will connect with the lived experiences of those in their immediate community.

Real data examples help to make this connection. Even if not fully flushed out, they indicates that the things we're learning have a purpose. They let students know that calculus can fight crime.

It's one thing to tell students that the gradient of a function lies perpendicular to its level set at a point.

It's quite another to show that a crime-fighting hero can calculate the gradient of a crime density function to find the hottest crime spots.

That's right, real heros use vector calculus.

That's awesome!

And perhaps that's the extra motivation a student occasionally needs.

]]>Thus this is more than just a contrived example. Students become invested when they see how the material they're studying will connect with the lived experiences of those in their immediate community.

Real data examples help to make this connection. Even if not fully flushed out, they indicates that the things we're learning have a purpose. They let students know that calculus can fight crime.

It's one thing to tell students that the gradient of a function lies perpendicular to its level set at a point.

It's quite another to show that a crime-fighting hero can calculate the gradient of a crime density function to find the hottest crime spots.

That's right, real heros use vector calculus.

That's awesome!

And perhaps that's the extra motivation a student occasionally needs.

It's ridiculous.

I believe that there are a number of compelling reasons why applications should be included in a Calculus course: they capture student interest, they encourage problem solving skills, and they demonstrate the power of mathematics. But in all three areas, this example fails. Very few college freshmen are interested in corrals, the pre-labeling of the example with*x* and *y *robs the student from any opportunity to develop and exercise problem solving skills, and honestly the solution is unlikely to leave the student with the impression, "Wow, math matters."

Simply put, the application appears artificial and uninteresting. There's no obvious reason why such a problem is preferable to simply giving the student an equivalent problem in strictly geometric terms with no mention of ranchers or corrals.

So what do we do? One approach is to teach 'only the math'; however, I'm concerned this robs the student of the above mentioned benefits, Thus I've settled on a different option.

In Dan Meyer's excellent TED talk , "Math class needs a makeover", he gives some suggestions for presenting application questions. Here is a slightly modified list I've created to guide me in choosing applications:

Below is one such application I've developed and used in teaching.

**Soda Can Problem**

Holding a soda can, one can naturally pose the question, "How did*Coca Cola* decide on the dimensions of this can?" After all, they could have made it taller and skinner or shorter and fatter, but for some reason the standard can size was settled on.

I believe that there are a number of compelling reasons why applications should be included in a Calculus course: they capture student interest, they encourage problem solving skills, and they demonstrate the power of mathematics. But in all three areas, this example fails. Very few college freshmen are interested in corrals, the pre-labeling of the example with

Simply put, the application appears artificial and uninteresting. There's no obvious reason why such a problem is preferable to simply giving the student an equivalent problem in strictly geometric terms with no mention of ranchers or corrals.

So what do we do? One approach is to teach 'only the math'; however, I'm concerned this robs the student of the above mentioned benefits, Thus I've settled on a different option.

In Dan Meyer's excellent TED talk , "Math class needs a makeover", he gives some suggestions for presenting application questions. Here is a slightly modified list I've created to guide me in choosing applications:

- Choose a relatable/interesting example. Real-world objects that students are familiar with are especially good choices.
- Form a natural, short question in non-mathematical language.
- Allow the students to formulate this into a more rigorous question.
- Allow students to label and identify the information essential to solving the problem.
- Take time to appreciate the solution and its significance.

Below is one such application I've developed and used in teaching.

Holding a soda can, one can naturally pose the question, "How did

Notice that a soda can holds 12 ounces (355 ml). Thus we're really asking what are the best dimensions so that our volume comes out to be 355 cubic cm. Of course, 'best' means cheapest and cheapest means using the least amount of aluminum possible in the construction of the can.

Now we can formulate our question more precisely: what dimensions of a can (that is, a cylinder) minimizes the material of the can (that is, the surface area) but keep the volume constant at 355 cubic cm.

Diameter and radius arise as natural choices to determine the dimensions of the can, and from these one can derive expressions for surface area and volume.

This is how I've begun my lectures on related rates in single variable calculus and Lagrangian multipliers in vector calculus. We then go on to develop the necessary calculus to solve the problem.

Then comes the best part: at the end of the lecture when we calculate the solution, it is actually interesting.

We calculate what the dimensions should be to minimize surface area, then measure with a ruler the actual can to see if they agree.

They don't.

*Coca Cola* would be saving a significant amount of material (and hence money) if they made their cans significantly shorter and fatter.

So why don't they? Maybe none of their product engineers know Calculus. More likely, a shorter fatter can size, although cheaper to make, would be awkward to hold. Perhaps they intentionally paid more for greater consumer satisfaction.

How did they model that trade-off? What other factors did they consider?

The student is left with an interesting result but also a host of related questions. Questions that calculus can continue to help them answer.

]]>Now we can formulate our question more precisely: what dimensions of a can (that is, a cylinder) minimizes the material of the can (that is, the surface area) but keep the volume constant at 355 cubic cm.

Diameter and radius arise as natural choices to determine the dimensions of the can, and from these one can derive expressions for surface area and volume.

This is how I've begun my lectures on related rates in single variable calculus and Lagrangian multipliers in vector calculus. We then go on to develop the necessary calculus to solve the problem.

Then comes the best part: at the end of the lecture when we calculate the solution, it is actually interesting.

We calculate what the dimensions should be to minimize surface area, then measure with a ruler the actual can to see if they agree.

They don't.

So why don't they? Maybe none of their product engineers know Calculus. More likely, a shorter fatter can size, although cheaper to make, would be awkward to hold. Perhaps they intentionally paid more for greater consumer satisfaction.

How did they model that trade-off? What other factors did they consider?

The student is left with an interesting result but also a host of related questions. Questions that calculus can continue to help them answer.

In the American University, there also appears to be influences that discourage students from asking questions. Perhaps the most common one being the fear of asking a bad (i.e. 'stupid') question. This post is my attempt to combat it.

The irony is that instructors crave for students to ask questions--even the 'bad' ones--because they reveal what aspects of the lecture the students are understanding and what ideas haven't been communicated effectively yet. But this is precisely what the student is afraid of: that by asking a question they will reveal how much they don't know (i.e. how lost they are).

Of course, being a student is all about not knowing (that's why one is taking the course in the first place). When one signs up and attends a calculus course, it automatically signals the instructor that s/he doesn't know the material.

So the fear of asking questions can't be grounded in not knowing, for that's in a student's job description. Rather it seems the fear boils down to the other aspect of being a student: learning. The student may fear that asking questions reveals he/she is an ineffective learner. "If I ask about that, everybody will know I didn't understand it the first time."

A few points to consider:

- First of all, instructors don't expect students to understand everything the first time through.
*In fact, they are banking on the fact that students don't.*If students were expected to understand everything the first time they saw it, we could simply record a lecture once and show it to all future generations of students. But this isn't how learning works. Every classroom has a unique set of students that needs to have the content of a lecture uniquely tailored to them. It is the interplay of students asking questions and professors formulating responses that accomplishes this. Thus, asking questions lets the instructor know that he/she is valuable and can't simply be replaced with a video recording. - Secondly, questions benefit the class as a whole. Perhaps it is a question on a really simple step you missed, then a quick 20 second explanation by the instructor gets you (and probably the handful of other students with the same question) caught up. Note well: 20 seconds is a small price to pay to help guarantee you (and a handful of others) can understand the next 20 minutes. Alternatively, if it is a question that takes a longer explanation--such as understanding a complicated concept--this allows the instructor to explain it again from a slightly different perspective. This both benefits the other students who were confused as well as those who understood it fine the first time, but now have another way of looking at it. In short, everybody wins.
- Thirdly,
*one's**learning is more important than what people perceive about his/her ability to learn*. One can either: (1) not ask questions out of fear of what others will think and get less out of a course; or (2) ask questions and learn more of the material. Honestly, choosing either (1) or (2) will probably make very little difference in one's social standing with his/her peers (I seldom remember who asked what last week); however, it will likely make a significant difference in his/her academic success.