Big Solve: Mathematics for the Common Good

Science and Tech
June 30, 2020

This story appears as part of the Spring/Summer 2020 cover story — Big Solve — in which faculty and staff use the holistic St. Mary’s style of education to offer solutions to some of our greatest challenges.

By Paul X. Uhlig, Ph.D., Chair and Professor of Mathematics

Last spring, I toured the Southwest Research Institute with a group of students to learn about summer internships. In a whirlwind overview, our host told us about some of their current projects and the cutting-edge mathematics being used. After the visit, I wondered how our students could succeed at such internships if they wouldn’t encounter most of these topics until graduate school.

Back at St. Mary’s, the question became: How can I lead my students to becoming proactive, independent, deep, lifelong learners who could thrive in such an environment? How can I encourage them to wade past shallow textbook exercises into a deeper understanding?

Easy: Take the textbook out of the equation!

For the rest of the semester, I gave my students puzzles (i.e., nonstandard word problems related to the course material). Reactions were mixed. Some students thought it was not fair to be given a problem without examples and guidance; others saw it as a refreshing change from the textbook routine.

The most convincing feedback was gratitude from senior Mathematics major Ana Molina, who received a special internship at KPISOFT, a cloud-based tech company, the following summer after impressing her interviewers by applying the proactive independent thinking she learned from my puzzle experience.

Today’s graduates will enter a world about which we, their professors, know little except this: It will bring profound disruption. We’ve been reminded of that recently with the rapid change required to address the COVID-19 virus.

Learning absolutely must be proactive, independent, deep and lifelong. Isn’t that the point of the Greek precept, “Know thyself”? Yes, this is the foundation of a quality, integral education. This is what prepares students for adaptation and change.

Our students who learn to learn can become the very leaders the world needs now — and in the future.

Read more about how St. Mary’s University is working for the common good in the Big Solve cover story:

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