Monday, September 27, 2010

Class Project

We're making a textbook. Or at least we're going to try.

On Friday I told my class I wanted to do a class project, where we all work together making a textbook. I told them I thought it would be fun and interesting and worthwhile. I told them that in addition to writing problems and solutions, like a textbook should have, they would also get to do something fun, of their own choosing, to make it a good project. I told them they had the weekend to think about it, and that we'd talk about it in class today. Attendance was unexpectedly low today, but the impression I got was that the majority of those in attendance were for the project. So we're going to try it.

The course I'm teaching is "Financial Math", and the textbook that has been used for this class in previous semesters, as decided by somebody else in the department some time in the past, is The Mathematics of Interest Rates and Finance, by Guthrie and Lemon (covering, approximately, chapters 1-6). I'm not a huge fan of this book, and I don't really hide that from my students. Rumor was that the department was considering finding a different book for this semester. I don't know how hard they looked, but we're using this book again. I'm pretty sure it's not because this is the best book we could be using. But what do I know. Anyway, the point is, this book is the basis for the course, and so will be the inspiration, if you will, for the book my class puts together.

I've been typing up my notes as I go, so I've got an outline and first draft of content for the first few chapters, so far. I told my students I'd write the first draft of the remaining content as well. There will be 3 parts of the project, from the perspective of it being a graded assignment. First, students will be put into groups and required to edit a few sections. I'm not much of a writer (in case you hadn't noticed), and I've done basically no editing of what I've written, so that'll be an important task. Next up, they will have to write some problems, and then I'll have them also write solutions for somebody else's problems. Finally, the fun part. They're to come up with a "mini project" that they want to do to make the book better. I've suggested things like:

  • making diagrams, charts, graphics to accompany the text
  • writing sections on using calculators, or spreadsheets
  • writing historical or real-world content
  • convert everything to other digital formats
But I'm hoping they come up with more. Things they actually want to do. I'm curious to see what they come up with. I told them to dream big, and don't worry if it was too big (we can trim it to something manageable for the purposes of grading). It'll be good to have ideas bouncing around.

The overall organization of this is still coming together. There's a bit of work that seems to need to happen on my end to get things off the ground. Next week we've got a midterm, and then we've got a little fall break, so hopefully by the time we return, in just over 2 weeks, things will be all organized for the class.

I've been LaTeXing my notes, but it seems like using the wiki feature of our course management system thanger will make it the most easy to access and keep together for everybody. So I dropped all of my current sections into the wiki. I cleaned up the first one a little, so it's now wiki-formatted, instead of LaTeX, and was working on the second section when I realized that I could just make this part of the editing they're supposed to do anyway :) Give them some experience using wikis. I may do a quick tutorial in class at some point, if we've got time. I'll aim to get first drafts of the remaining sections written quickly, so that students can start editing and writing problems and things when we get back from break.

I decided that since there are 5-6 chapters, depending on how I organize things, for the problem/solution writing portion of the project, they can just write one problem/solution per chapter. I'll have to decide how to organize who does solutions for which problems, but I figure I've got a little time in that regard.

For the mini projects, I decided to make them write a (brief, informal) proposal for what they want to do. I made it due next week, which gives me a week to look at them during break (while I'm grading exams, writing the remaining sections, oh, and that thesis thing...). I'm guessing there will be some overlap among projects, so they might end up getting grouped. And it will hopefully give me a chance to make sure everybody is doing "enough", or at least comparable amounts. I told them if they had "big" ideas, and people to work with, their mini project could be in groups. There might be some students who don't want to come up with anything - I told them they'd be assigned a project (possibly just writing more problems/solutions).

When I get carried away, I dream that this project could all come together to something beautiful and useful by the end of the semester (I think some students may be thinking like this too!). That maybe the department would start using it. That maybe folks outside of the department could get something out of it. In the discussions in class, I've told them how I think it would be great to release it as a fairly open project, like under a permissive creative commons license. In class today, I told them to assume they're working on a project that will be released fairly openly, and that if they were opposed to this they should email me or send anonymous feedback. They can still work on things and get their grade, I just wouldn't include their work in a release version (kinda tricky for "editing"... I'm hoping this doesn't come up). I also told them that I wasn't sure what the University would think about such a project, or about such a project being released however we want. Maybe they'll claim it, or restrict how we can distribute it. I'm probably going to go for a "beg forgiveness" approach, instead of "ask permission". I took a quick look online, but didn't find anything about university policies that seemed applicable. Presumably I'm being irresponsible... it's not the first time.

So, anyway. Could be fun. Could be disappointing. Will almost certainly be more work than I've considered. Hopefully we make something useful...

If you've got comments, feedback, or suggestions, I'd love to hear it. I'm sorta making this all up as I go. If you'd like to pre-order your copy today... :) I jest. Mostly. (drop a comment, you might inspire my class)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Choose Life. Choose a Job. Choose a Career.

This is my last semester as a graduate student, I'm moving on to a "real job." I may graduate. I may not. I basically don't care much either way, at this point. My job offer doesn't depend on my having a Ph.D., and I don't see a future for myself where a Ph.D. is required. Perhaps I'll get fired in short order and will have neither a Ph.D. nor experience/recommendation. I'll cross that bridge if I come to it. I'll feel bad if I don't get my advisor a thesis after all he's done, but hopefully if that happens he'll at least be closer to a paper.

This summer I did an internship as a software developer at Rosetta Stone, where I had a great time. I was on a team full of good people, all easy to work with (the impression I got was that such people were all over the place at Rosetta Stone). During this time I worked on an Adobe AIR application described by my boss at an executive-summary level as a "Fancy Tape Recorder." There was already some work done on it when I came in and, with my fellow intern, I think we got things to a pretty reasonable state by the end of the summer.

I enjoyed my time at Rosetta Stone, and the team I was on seemed to think I was doing good work. At the end of the summer, I submitted an application for full-time employment, and eventually an offer was extended to me. In the mean time, I had also applied to Telogis Research, in New Zealand. I would have gone in a heartbeat, but apparently didn't do well enough on my phone interview. Ah well. At least I had fun with their quiz. The third and final place I applied was CCRi, here in Charlottesville.

After a terribly uncertain week, with lots of lying in bed pondering and not being able to fall asleep, and some last minute craziness (apologies to all involved), I'm finally sorted. CCRi gave an offer I'm pretty excited about, and so I'm going to see what happens there.

I'm quite nervous about it, to be honest, and that's why I was leaning to Rosetta Stone for a while. At CCRi, I'll be a systems engineer. I don't even exactly know what that is. I don't remember the last class I was in that had much to do with applications. As they pointed out during my interview, they've got a lot they need me to learn. I hope I wasn't too far off in my claim that after all this time in school, as student and as teacher, I can learn quickly and effectively. If not, I'm potentially looking at that no job + no phd bridge in short order.

Additionally, I'll need to get a security clearance. Hopefully not much of an issue, but it will mean giving up being an Australian citizen, apparently. And I just got my passport :-(. Ah well. It's been pointed out to me that there are plenty of nice places in the States to live. And it's not like I couldn't go visit. And, since Telogis didn't take me, how likely was it I was heading that way soon anyway? Life was bound to get in the way sooner or later. Still, it's a bummer dude.

So I'm not sure what will happen with this blog. My math fork is already a bit neglected. I guess this has always just been a personal ranting blog anyway, so probably it'll stick around. As this is my last semester teaching, I probably won't have too much more to say about textbooks or institutionalized education (maybe just a little bit as the semester rolls on :)). I'll keep my eye on the space, and I do believe there will be interesting developments there in the next few years (they're happening already). But for now, it looks like I'm out. Off to other things.

Choose rottin' away at the end of it all...