Katherine Johnson: Yes, She Can.


One of the skills that Occupy Math’s editor had to teach him was to avoid burying the lead. It’s tempting to build up to a big reveal, but many potential readers don’t have the patience in this very modern age. So: the woman pictured is the quite awesome Katherine Johnson and that decorative looking object on the ribbon is the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Here is the citation for the award of the medal. According to President Barack Obama:

“With her razor-sharp mathematical mind, Katherine G. Johnson helped broaden the scope of space travel, charting new frontiers for humanity’s exploration of space, and creating new possibilities for all humankind. From sending the first American to space to the first moon landing, she played a critical role in many of NASA’s most important milestones. Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.”

You can get a Medal of Freedom for being awesome at math in adverse circumstances.

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With big data comes big responsibility.

One of the battles that Occupy Math fights every week is to convince people of the relevance of math. This week Occupy Math looks at the Pandora’s box of big data analytics. This is not only relevant math, currently being used in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, but also it is a recurring threat to civil liberty (no, not because Hillary is using it!). We’re going to look at what big data is, how it can be used, and how it can be abused. Pandora’s box contained many evils but also hope – and big data has substantial hope on offer. This post updates an earlier Occupy Math about the values and dangers of statistics.

Statistics, and its Godzilla form – big data analytics – are a little like the Force. There is a light side, a dark side, and a lot of hype.

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What is a fractal anyhow?

One of Occupy Math’s readers said that a friend of hers, who has seen Occupy Math’s fractals both in the blog and on Facebook, asked her what a fractal is. She tried to explain, but found it a bit difficult. This is because it is a bit difficult to explain, but Occupy Math will take a shot at it in today’s post. The actual answer is simple.

A fractal is an object with a fractional number of dimensions.

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Language Arts Math Test. Uh, oh!

Last week Occupy Math looked with deep skepticism at standardized tests. This week, a related problem: are our math tests — from in class to the scholastic aptitude tests (SATs) — testing math or something else like language proficiency? Occupy Math thanks Catherine Emerson for pointing to this topic and Peter Ashlock for serving as Occupy Math’s research staff on this one. The key point is this.

Math tests often test language proficiency and cultural norms, not math.

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School Math Epic Fail

Occupy Math is writing this week as a break from grading the initial homework turned in by his first-year calculus students. These students are not stupid – this is a group that self-selected to take the much harder course that Occupy Math runs. In spite of this, Occupy Math had to grade nine papers to find a paper that gets a passing grade. This happens every year like clockwork. The problem is not the students; they are just the ones that are paying the price. What is going on?

  • The students have not had much graded homework before, because their teachers are given too many classes to teach and not enough time for prep or grading.
  • Most of the students have never had a math class. Instead they have been taught to look for a template and apply it, effectively math as ritual magic. No thinking about the problem, no asking if their answer makes sense, no practice with problem solving.
  • The math curriculum the teachers are asked to present is badly designed and poorly presented because it is created by people that are both out of touch with mathematics and steeped, nay marinated in useless jargon. Here’s an example.
  • The goal of the curriculum these students were subjected to was not the teaching of mathematics. It was Pavlovian conditioning to get better scores on (useless, more on that below) standardized tests.

Current math education in many high schools produces failing university students.

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