All entries for June 2006

June 28, 2006

The Heavy Metal Umlaut

Writing about web page

This fascinating animation shows the evolution of a page from Wikipedia over three years condensed into about three minutes (it reminds me of the one–minute London–to–Brighton train ride shown on BBC TV donkey's years ago).

Don't miss Spinal Tap

  • the rise and fall of Hitler
  • the gothic alternative
  • the abortive four–minute vandal attack
  • the use of "n umlaut" in Guatemala

June 23, 2006

Explaining the Silence

The long gap since my last entry on 20th March is due to some time–and–energy–diverting deadlines, including:

  • Preparing and running a summative CAA test for 166 mathematics undergraduates(simultaneously using Question Mark Perception in one venue and Maple TA in another)
  • Writing a proposal for funding Phase 2 of this CAA Project (happily successful)
  • Writing a joint proposal on wikis as a teaching–and–learning tool (fingers crossed)
  • Most demandingly, carrying out the complex assessment for a compulsory Projects module taken by 66 finalists on our 4–year Master of Mathematics (MMath) degree programme.

Now I am happily back to full–frontal CAA again.

But since the administration and assessment of the Projects module MA469 draws heavily on the resources of the digital age, it may interest readers to know how it works. Here goes:

MA469, the only core module in the MMath final year, accounts for 20% of the year's credit and comes in two flavours: students can freely choose either a Research Project or a Maths-in-Action (MiA) Project. They are informally advised, however, that research projects are for those intent on subsequently studying for a higher degree and MiA–projects are for the rest, most of whom will be entering of the job market.

Research Projects
The philosophy is that students contemplating a research degree in mathematics will make a better decision (on whether to commit and in what area) if they get a taste of mathematics research beforehand. MMath students at the end of their third year are this week knocking on my colleagues' doors to find out about, and maybe sign up for, projects in their areas of research expertise. Colleagues are not obliged to offer research projects, but those that do not only enjoy the experience of inspiring a talented undergraduate to work at the cutting edge but often end up with a well–trained and well–motivated research student ready to start a PhD the following year.

Responsibility for organising and assessing research projects lies firmly with the individual supervisors, who, of course, each have their own working styles and standards. In the Easter vacation, students submit a dissertation, which is read by the examiners (the supervisor and a second marker). They hold an oral, which includes a 20—30 minute presentation by the student, after which the examiners settle on a mark. Occasionally a third opinion is sought when the examiners don't agree. The main challenge is to ensure consistency between supervisors. Supervisors are given clear and detailed guidelines on the assessment criteria, and the external examiners, who can get a broad overview and spot anomalies, provide an important safety net.

Maths-in-Action Projects
These are more circumscribed than research projects. Students choose from a list of given topics that are underpinned by some serious mathematics (this year's themes included Encryption on the Internet, Voting, Data Compression, Optimal Vaccination, Virtual Reality and Communication Networks). They are given a fairly explicit brief and a skeleton bibliography, and must produce (for the stated percentage credit)

  • A Public Presentation (30%)
  • A Scholarly Report (60%)
  • Peer Assessments of 3 reports on different themes by fellow students (10%)

Students may also negotiate their own topics and briefs with the module organiser.

For their public presentation they may offer either a poster session or a 25-minute talk. In either case their audience consists of open-day visitors (admissions candidates and their companions). They can work alone or in pairs. Their challenging task is to hint at the power of mathematics and inspire the aspiring Warwick students without losing the interest of the parents (perspiring at the prospect of 12K in fees) in the audience who may not even be comfortable with GCSE Maths.

Their scholarly reports must include all the mathematics they left out of their public presentations. With no word limit (but over 6 years ranging from 20 and 120 sides of A4), these reports must display not only wide–ranging scholarship but well–assimilated knowledge of, and insight into, the intimate relationship between mathematics and the complex real world we inhabit. Lively writing for enquiring minds is the order of the day, with pictures and animations thrown in if appropriate.

The peer reviews are intended to broaden our students' knowledge of mathematics "under the bonnet" of modern technology. and perhaps provide them something to talk about in their job interviews! Too often our graduates go forth into the world, their brains crammed with powerful and beautiful abstract thoughts but without a clue of how the stuff they learnt in their modules changes peoples' lives.

If all this adds up to a lot of marking and moderating (and it certainly does!), where do the benefits of th digital age come in? First, the module is entirely administered via Mathstuff, the Maths Dept's web site for teaching and learning: for instance, in October students register their preferences online; in March they submit their reports in electronic form immediately accessible to the examiners; in April they carry out their peer reviews online, reading their three reports in a browser window and submitting their reviews in a web form. To write their technical reports they must learn to use a mathematical word processor (many become skilled in writing LaTeX markup for high quality mathematical typesetting) and submit their files in portable document format (pdf). Many produce their posters with advanced design packages and use versatile presentation software to create animated slides to enhance their talks. The MiA projects certainly encourage our students to develop what are known in edu–speak as 'transferable skills'. They are not short of job offers either.

June 2006

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