Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Wow, that's amazing!"

Calculus is one of the greatest intellectual achievements in the history of mankind!  Very few other achievements rise to the level of Calculus.  Indeed, Uri Treisman said in 1992,
"The subject drips with power and beauty.  It rendered thousand-year-old questions immediately transparent.  Calculus is truly amazing.  But, how many students who take the course as freshmen look up and say, `Wow! That's amazing!'?  How often, math faculty members, have your students had that experience?"
These questions, 20 years later are still relevant.  When I talk to students about calculus, some of them like it, many are afraid of calculus, and very few have a grasp of the subject that goes beyond mere surface computations.

I emphasize emphatically that no one wants this to be the outcome.  This isn't something that people intend to happen.  But it is our reality.  Making our courses into "Wow!" experiences on an intellectual level is a challenge that is presented to the mathematics profession.

So here we are with this tremendous gift of having one of the greatest set of ideas of all time in our hands to teach to hundreds of thousands of freshmen every year.  Should we not feel in our hearts, "What a great opportunity!"?  If calculus is just a job, then there's room for improvement.