Friday, May 21, 2010

New Advice for Incoming Freshmen....

A new item under the category of Incoming Freshmen advice has been worked out, and an announcement here is worth the post. In short,
Who should be taking the honors versions of our mathematics courses?
A lot of questions have come up among individuals about the role of the honors versions of our service courses, and who is really qualified to take them. We have updated our advice page:
Before the change, the advice page recommended the honors version of multivariable calculus, 110.211 Honors Multivariable Calculus, to anyone with a score of 5 on the Advanced Placement BC-level exam. While this score certainly opens up access to the course, really the focus and intent of the course is different from that of the regular version 110.202 Calculus III.

The honors version, like all of our honors versions, is really a course in "mathematics taught the way mathematicians would really like to teach mathematics" (my quote). It is a highly theoretic versions of the standard curriculum, focusing to a large extent, on the underlying theory of a topic and focusing less on the applications and techniques. It is a great course for budding mathematics majors and those who aspire to learn mathematics in a more formal way. In fact, it is a great course to use as a bridge to higher level mathematics, and we encourage our mathematics majors to take the honors versions of all of the courses where we offer such a version.

On the other hand, the honors versions of our courses are not really for someone who simply wants to have the title "honors" on their transcript. Nor are they for students who are not interested in gaining a deep understanding of why topics like calculus are so foundational to higher level understanding of all mathematical modeling.

We have found that many students were jumping directly into this course (and the other honors courses) and having to reassess their choice after a couple of weeks into the semester. Many of these students found themselves switching "down" to the regular version of the course. Not a good way to start one's career here at Hopkins, no?

With this new advice page, we hope to better inform students of our intent, as well our offerings in courses. We always welcome any and ALL commentary of our curriculum, and strongly encourage questions about our programs.

And for ALL of the incoming freshmen out there, welcome to Hopkins. My door is always open!


Chris said...

Much of the misconception on the part of the freshman (and often sophomores, juniors, and even seniors) is in the way the word "Honors" is used. In their previous high school setting it meant that the class was taught at a faster pace, covered more material, or had more challenging problems than similar classes. Here, you're using it to mean that the class is being taught on a completely different level of sophistication and abstraction that only trained mathematicians might truly understand. Often it's at exactly this point in math education at which the student moves from the applications and techniques level to a more theoretic and abstract level, which is were some of the most truly beautiful mathematics is actually done.

Perhaps calling it 110.211 Rigorous Multivariable Calculus would better help to provide the distinction. Or possibly even using both "honors" and "rigorous"!

Alas, if only there were a better way of explaining this subtle but definite difference to the broader public...

Richard Brown said...

Actually, I don't mean to imply that "only a trained mathematician" would understand the material in our honors courses. But I do mean to imply that the focus of the material is on the theoretical underpinnings of the topic, rather than on its utility. But you are right that the word "honors" is a bit ambiguous as it is used in different ways by different people.

I believe that we will stick with "honors" as our designation, and work to explain what WE mean by it.

Alas, you are also correct in that the public perception of mathematics is vastly different from ours (yours, mine and, in general, academia's), and this is neither a healthy nor a easily-remedied thing.