Monday, November 14, 2005

Of Course This is the Problem with the Open-Ended Assignment

In case you can't tell by the flurry of posts, I am grading. If you bring take-out sushi, I will think fondly of you forever. Double-especially if you can find me some toro.

For those new around here, every semester in my gen-ed class I give a fairly open-ended assignment. The students are asked to explore a mathematical idea or an application of mathematics to another field and then to present their findings in an appropriate format. I give them about 30 ideas to help them get started, but I encourage them to come up with their own topic if they feel up to it. Typically the pile of things submitted is fairly predictable: sports rankings and statistics, art and architecture, computational aspects of everyday lives. Mostly papers, both formal and informal. A few objets d'art. Some electronic media.

Even after giving this assignment every semester for almost four years I continue to be surprised.

No longer surprising: For some of my students, they are better at math than they are at writing!

Surprising: One of my students is a spammer (or, more accurately, works under contract to a spammer) and used math to more effectively harvest email addresses!

Perplexing: A submission so batshit crazy that I can't decide whether my student really believes what's been written or whether this is an attempt at an elaborate farce.