I am coming to you today with questions. Well, questions based on some of my own ideas…
This year I will be not only teaching, but entirely in charge of the UCT first year mathematics for scientists courses, known as MAM1000W. I have a number of changes I plan on making, not so much to the syllabus, but to the extra activities associated with the course, in an attempt to make it as rich and deep a learning experience as I can.
The first step of this has been altering the structure of the resource book. The resource book is a PDF which will be sent to all first years taking the course. Historically, it contains a little about the course content, a bit about how your marks will be calculated, a bit about good practice in terms of how to work, and then the second half is filled with tutorial questions.
This has been a relatively useful resource, but I want to see if we can make it a powerful tool in itself. So, what have I done? The questions for you will come shortly…
The first thing that I’ve done is to vastly expand the sections in the first half. The first part is an introduction to studying maths at first year level. It’s a page about the fact that MAM1000W is renowned as a scary course, but that with the right way of seeing things, and the right study methods, you can get through it, not only successfully, but happily. The first couple of paragraphs looks like this:
MAM1000W has a reputation for being a tough course. It is absolutely true that it is an intensive course, and it will almost certainly be the deepest level of understanding you have ever had to acquire in such a short time. It is also true that you will have many other things going on in your lives, from getting used to the more independent life at university, to meeting new friends, to getting to grips with all of your other courses. There’s a lot to take on board, and without a doubt, at times it will feel overwhelming.
While there is a lot going on, there is also a lot of support for you, from the lecturers, as well as from tutors, mentors in the second and third year (see the section on mentors, ahead), and of course your fellow students, who will be going through many of the same challenges that you face…
The second section is a meet the team section, which introduces the lecturers, and the senior tutors. Then there are detailed sections about how to revise, how to do tutorials, how to best use the mentoring system, etc. There’s also a section called “Why study mathematics”, which includes thoughts like:
We look at the world around us and by our very nature we try and understand it. In the past we wanted to understand the seasons, and the weather, the constellations and the way different crops grow, the flow of the river and the way fire burns. As we built up our understanding of our environment more and more we found that we got to the point where a pure qualitative description wasn’t enough. If we really want control over the world around us we need to understand it quantitatively not just qualitatively.
So, the point is that it’s relatively text heavy, and while I think that the content is useful, the amount of content may put off some students from reading it, especially those for whom English is not their first language. So far I’ve got around 15 pages of text, often split up into bullet-points and subsections, but it’s still a lot of text to sit down and read. So, what’s the obvious (but maybe naive approach)? Well, I’ve found that I can get a lot of it translated through various channels in the University into all the other official South African languages.
This seems like a win, but it has been pointed out to me that many people who speak, for instance, Xhosa, will not be that used to reading it. It is far more commonly a spoken language than it is a written one. This is not to say that there is not literature, poetry and much else written in Xhosa, but that many people are just not that used to reading it in bulk, and so even if it’s translated, it may put people off. The message will still not come across.
So, what comes next? My idea is that if this information will be more easily digested in a spoken form, why not get people to video themselves presenting the material? But this is where I want to ask some questions.
I don’t want to exploit students, even if it is for the benefit of the students that I am trying to create these materials. In the short time frame available (I would like the incoming students to have access to this, which means I have about two weeks to get it all ready), there is not easily accessible funding available to pay people to make these videos. However, there is some funding available. My idea is to have a competition, and those students who make the best videos presenting the material will win prizes (paid for by the not terribly extensive funding available). The idea will be to try and get videos in as many languages as possible, with students giving their interpretation of the information that I have written about best study practices, mentoring, and the beauty of mathematics.
Before I dive right in and get students to make these videos for such a competition, I would love to get feedback as to a) whether you think that this translation idea is worthwhile, and b) What you think the most effective way of getting it done would be.
The real reason for wanting to do this is to make the materials that I’m writing as accessible as possible for the largest number of new students. Many of those coming in are coming from very different environments to that which they will meet at UCT, and so I would like to see what we can do to accommodate the most diverse cohort of students possible.
Any ideas will be gratefully received!