This essay by Dr. Stephanie Salomone, Associate Professor and Chair of Mathematics at UP, is part of a series of short pieces that offer faculty across the campus an insider’s tour of one of the courses that make up UP’s Core program. Since the Core involves almost a third of the curriculum for every UP student, faculty can benefit from these discipline-by-discipline essays, to better understand the breadth of their students’ campus experience.
Way back when my boys were 3, 5, and 8, I took them to a community event in Cathedral Park that was focused on saving the Willamette River. From what, I didn’t know, but we were promised food carts and bubbles and that was all I needed to say to convince the littles that we should go check it out.
The St. John’s Bubble Guys were there, and were surprisingly grumpy about all the children running around popping bubbles, which made no sense. It was as if they expected to show up at a community gathering, where children would be gleefully enjoying the sunshine, and those same kids would keep their hands off the hundreds of bubbles floating around. It was as if the Bubble Guys had never met children. It was as if the Bubble Guys had never been children.
This was an event with a message, though, and so while the boys romped in the grass under the St. Johns Bridge, I checked out the booths. Beyond the elephant ears and the face painting, there this claim: we have polluted our waterway with shipping, with manufacturing, and with the detritus that comes from being a modern human. It was a stark contrast to the message the kids were sending: we are joyful, free, and happy to be bursting these bubbles.
Eventually, the Master of Ceremonies got on the makeshift stage, and into the mic he shouted, “The Willamette River is 95% polluted,” and yes, that sounded really alarming. It also sounded totally unbelievable.
I wondered so many things.
Did they take 100 samples from a single spot and 95 of them had some level of pollution in them? Or maybe 100 samples from different spots? If they did that, did they account for the fact that the water is moving? Does this matter? How many samples did they take? How many samples is enough to make that kind of claim, and how would I test their claim? What would make this result replicable? Do they mean by volume? If I pulled out 100 gallons of water, would 95 gallons be not water but actual pollutants? No. That can’t be. There are fish in the Willamette, though I wouldn’t eat them. But they’re alive, and there is no way they could survive if the river were 95% pollutant by volume. What is the threshold for any sample to be considered “polluted”?
If the claim is true, what are we going to do about it, and maybe more importantly, who is “WE”? Even if the claim is only a half-truth, something needs to be done, and when I considered the kinds of people I’d want looking at and for solutions, I decided that the solvers would need confidence in asking tough questions and discerning what questions to ask in the first place. They would need strong problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. They would need to question claims and parse and evaluate evidence. They would need to take risks, and be willing to be wrong, and they would have to be the strongest of communicators, so that once they found a solution (or maybe many solutions) they could convince even the harshest skeptics that they’d done it.
Children, in their way, are great at this. They’re natural question-askers and information-seekers. They challenge authority (or at least, my boys do), and because so many things are novel to them, they try new things all the time without worrying so much about doing it right the first time. Children wonder and they ask why, and why, and why because their curiosity about how things work is never sated. Children aren’t great communicators, but they are malleable, and can be trained to be polite. To explain their thinking. To reason. And to do so with the same glee that they show us when they’re running after bubbles.
This is not to imply that I anticipate that children will solve major environmental crises, but that they have the right mindset to do so.
In the core mathematics courses, our focus is simultaneously on content and mindset. We can empower students to know statistics and calculus, but we can also train them to apply concepts and to leverage their knowledge to solve difficult and perhaps critical problems. We want our students to see that struggling with mathematical concepts is normal and temporary, and that we believe that they will succeed.
Students succeed when they can look in disbelief at quantitative claims, and demonstrate willingness to seek to prove or disprove them. Mathematics students find patterns, take large problems apart into smaller ones, and then combine solutions to the small problems to solve the whole. In the core, we help students establish a learning community, and to ask how they can use their considerable strengths (even, perhaps especially, the nonmathematical ones) to succeed in a world that is more and more dependent on data and technology, reasoning, and computation.
Our mission is to evoke curiosity about new ways of thinking, and connect to, collaborate with, and challenge one another as we invite students to contribute to our mathematics community. Through inquiry, creativity, and vital, relevant conversation, we instill habits of abstract and applied mathematical thinking and examine the impact of mathematics on our world.
We believe that all students will make contributions that make our world feel, and perhaps be, more whole and less fractured. We believe that the core mathematics courses teach students to apply a critical lens to conjectures about global and local issues, boost curiosity, increase confidence, and establish the need for a growth mindset. And our sincere hope is that our students can re-establish the absolute joy of learning. It’s just like the joy of popping bubbles, without the slimy soap film.
-Dr. Stephanie Salomone