Monday, September 21, 2009

Dear Honors Students, Please Come to My Office More Often

I just spent about 30 minutes talking to one of my honors students. I'm running my honors seminar a bit differently from usual this semester. First off, I'm spending the first five or so minutes of each class telling my students a bit about how the university works -- like what they need to do to take advantage of honors priority registration or how it's worth it to try to petition anything (especially if you're trying to fulfill a requirement by taking a higher level class than the ones on the list). I've also decided to put groups of three students in charge of the discussion for each day. I figure that it will teach them what makes a good discussion question (which, in turn should say something about what makes a good paper topic), and it will give them first-hand understanding of why everyone needs to do the reading.

So today one of my students was in my office telling me about what his group has planned for tomorrow. He showed me a graphical simulation that he coded up that demonstrates how the system behaves when you change the parameters. (Much more impressive than the text-based scrolling numbers in the one that I started to write -- and never finished.) In addition to doing the reading in the book, he also found articles from the literature (yes, this is a freshman reading dynamical systems papers published within the past 10 years), and was asking me questions about the hypotheses in the model. Really, really, really bright student. Has things really, really, really together. And is interested in everything mathematical that I bring up. The system that we're looking at has the interaction modeled by a continuous function, and we talked a bit about how it would change the model if you varied the interaction. What if we had a graph-theoretical model where things were either connected or not? What if we had weights on the edges? What if "friend-of-a-friend" had a different influence than a direct connection?

I'm being very, very good and not trying to steal him away for the math department. Well, not much. I've told him that he should take the math major section of the "how to write a proof" class this spring. It's much easier to convince students that math is awesome if they can take the upper-level courses. And you need to be able to write a proof if you're going to take real math classes.

My student is currently a computer science major hoping to study theoretical computer science. From what I've seen, a lot of the CS students here are more interested in software engineering and coding and less interested in theory, and that attitude comes across in the classroom dynamic. He has an appointment next week to go talk to the CS advisor who will probably give him the same fairly conservative advice that is given to all freshmen who think that they're going to major in CS. Instead of trying to win him over for math, I've told him that he needs to start making friends over in CS. I've suggested that he should start by talking to the TAs for the class he's taking now and to see what kind of research they're working on and then getting to know faculty who are working on things he thinks are cool.

But if that doesn't work out and if they brush him off, I'm going to make sure that he gets a warm welcome from the math department.