Archive for January, 2012
Einstein said, “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.”
If so, then last Tuesday evening we held a reception and lit the Tower orange to honor three of UT’s greatest poets, all of whom recently have won extremely prestigious awards in mathematics.
- Ivo M. Babuska won the 2012 AMS Leroy P. Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement “for his many pioneering advances in the numerical solution of partial differential equations over the last half century.” Dr. Babuska hails from Prague, previously taught at the University of Maryland, and is a professor of aerospace engineering, holding the Trull Chair in Engineering.
- Luis Caffarelli won Israel’s 2012 Wolf Prize, along with seven other American, British, and Israeli recipients. The Math Department now has two Wolf Prize winners on faculty, the other being John Tate, who won in 2002. Originally from Buenos Aires, Dr. Caffarelli taught at Minnesota, Chicago, NYU, and Princeton before coming to UT, where he holds the Sid Richardson Chair in Mathematics. His research interests include nonlinear analysis, partial differential equations and their applications, calculus of variations and optimization.
- Bjorn Engquist won the 2012 AMS-SIAM George David Birkhoff Prize in Applied Mathematics, “for his contributions to a wide range of powerful computational methods over more than three decades.” (SIAM=Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics). From Stockholm, Dr. Engquist has taught at UCLA, Princeton, and the Royal Inst. of Technology in Stockholm and now holds the Computational and Applied Mathematics Chair at UT.
All three are also affiliated with UT’s Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences.
Adding to the stature of mathematics at UT, the department is in the rare situation of now hosting four concurrent National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellows – truly a hallmark of an elite group. I congratulate all these winners and department chair Alan Reid for his leadership of such a groundbreaking program.
Hook ’em Horns,
On Tuesday night, President Obama, speaking about controlling the rising cost of college in his State of the Union address, said, “Some schools redesign courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology.”
Earlier that day, UT Austin faculty, students, and administrators were briefed by three teams of professors who are leading the charge in these two interrelated areas — course redesign and educational technology. They are pioneering a campus-wide initiative to transform the student experience in our large, entry-level courses. Specifically, we heard from teachers of gateway, introductory courses in biology, chemistry, and statistics.
The goal of course transformation is to improve student learning and academic success. Until now, the assumption across higher education has been that the only way to teach large numbers of students is in a traditional lecture format, what I call “the sage on the stage.” But is it possible to teach students in our largest classes more by using a more interactive, student-centered format? The answer seems to be yes.
With the first semester of this experiment behind us, the results are encouraging. Attendance in these classes is up to 92 percent, it appears that students are learning more, and new course offerings filled up instantly. Moreover, teachers of mainstream courses fed by these entry-level courses report a dramatic increase in the interaction from and expectations of students coming out of the pilot courses.
On the technology front, some of these new courses feature classroom response systems, like “clickers” with which students can respond to multiple-choice questions from the teacher in real time, telling the professor whether the class is grasping the material. Outside class, students use interactive websites that feature well-produced videos and animations illustrating concepts covered in class and assess their own progress with quizzes.
But many of the changes require no new technology; they only require a shift in class design. In biology – the largest major at UT Austin – professors are using more case studies to illuminate key principles instead of relying on an orderly memorization of material. In statistics, students are using public health issues as a means of understanding how to analyze data. And in chemistry, students are asked to collaborate with their neighbors during class to solve problems and often are invited up to the blackboard to demonstrate their conclusions.
As for the faculty, they show little nostalgia for their old lecture formats and report being energized by greater interaction with students. Indeed, far from making professors less important, the consensus is that these student-centered formats make professors more crucial than when they simply paced the stage.
I’m heartened by the early success of these “course transformation” experiments and am proud that The University of Texas is leading for change in an area of national consequence. Especially, I want to thank the faculty members who have stepped up to lead us into a new era of more effective teaching.
Happy New Year. I hope everyone had a good holiday break.
Kim and I had a great time cheering the Horns to victory in San Diego and visiting with many of you. Above is a picture of the Holiday Bowl Parade float I rode with Student Government president Natalie Butler, the UT Cheerleaders, and Hook ’em.
As a new calendar year dawns and the spring semester approaches, I’m excited for what 2012 holds. A new graduating class and a new entering class. New discoveries by students and faculty. And renewed recognition by the world beyond the Forty Acres of the work the University does. There will be challenges, as there always are, but I know the UT family is up to those challenges.
Thanks for everything you do for the University, and thanks for helping us make 2012 our best year yet.
What starts here changes the world.