Priscilla Bremser, contributing editor of the AMS Blog and professor at Middlebury College, reflects on "The Liberal Art of Mathematics" in today's AMS blog (December 19, 2014). She writes:
[O]ur understandings of the liberal arts are about content and practice. Both are important, and they work in concert. We can’t develop our students’ intellectual capacities without carefully considering content, and we can’t rely on content alone to prepare them for the challenges they’ll face confronting questions we can’t even imagine right now. (I don’t remember Fortran, but the value of learning to write computer programs endures.)
What does this say about the “Liberal Arts Mathematics” course? Steve Strogatz has been tweeting about the one he’s been teaching, using materials from the Discovering the Art of Mathematics project. Jessica Lahey wrote about his course for The Atlantic. What I’ve seen suggests that it is indeed possible to engage students, even those who start the course with apprehension or even fear, in “authentic mathematical experiences,” as the project intends. For this audience, figuring out how to produce a scalene triangle with one cut of the scissors is an exercise in plane geometry, a foundational topic. It’s also an exercise in making mistakes and persevering, something that may not have been encouraged in their earlier mathematics courses. The authenticity is evident in both the geometric content and the exploratory approach.