Welcome to the course web page for the Spring 2017 manifestation of MAT 220: Introduction to Mathematical Reasoning at Northern Arizona University.

Course Information

Title: MAT 220: Introduction to Mathematical Reasoning
Semester: Spring 2017
Credits: 3
Section: 1
Time: MWF at 9:10-10:00AM
Location: AMB 164

Instructor Information

  Dana C. Ernst, PhD
  AMB 176
  MWF 10:15-11:15AM, T 11:00-12:00PM

What is This Course All About?

MAT 220 is an introductory course in mathematical reasoning in multi-step problems across different areas of mathematics. The goal is to use elementary mathematical tools to solve more complex problems in already familiar areas of study such as precalculus, basic number theory, geometry, and discrete mathematics, instead of teaching new mathematical tools that are used in straightforward one-step exercises. The focus is on problem solving and solution writing.

The world is changing faster and faster. An education must prepare a student to ask and explore questions in contexts that do not yet exist. That is, we need individuals capable of tackling problems they have never encountered and to ask questions no one has yet thought of.

The focus of this course is on reasoning and communication through problem solving and written mathematical arguments in order to provide students with more experience and training early in their university studies. The goal is for the students to work on interesting yet challenging multi-step problems that require almost zero background knowledge. The hope is that students will develop (or at least move in the direction of) the habits of mind of a mathematician. The problem solving of the type in this course is a fundamental component of mathematics that receives little focused attention elsewhere in our program. There will be an explicit focus on students asking questions and developing conjectures.

In addition to helping students develop procedural fluency and conceptual understanding, we must prepare them to ask and explore new questions after they leave our classrooms—a skill that we call mathematical inquiry.

The content of the course includes, but is not limited to:

  • Problem solving strategies such as: use of figures and diagrams, use of variables, considering simpler cases, recognizing patterns, conjectures, counterexamples, breaking up into sub-problems, working backwards, case analysis, considering an extreme case, contradiction, induction, pigeon hole principle, symmetry, algorithms, coding, persistence;
  • Writing solutions such as: communicating a solution, planning, organization, lemmas, naming, figures, concise vs. detailed, proofreading;
  • Mathematical thinking such as: generalization, converse, hidden connections, new problem construction, open ended problems, ill-defined problems.

An Inquiry-Based Approach

This is not a lecture-oriented class or one in which mimicking prefabricated examples will lead you to success. You will be expected to work actively to construct your own understanding of the topics at hand, with the readily available help of me and your classmates. Many of the concepts you learn and problems you work will be new to you and ask you to stretch your thinking. You will experience frustration and failure before you experience understanding. This is part of the normal learning process. If you are doing things well, you should be confused at different points in the semester. The material is too rich for a human being to completely understand it immediately. Your viability as a professional in the modern workforce depends on your ability to embrace this learning process and make it work for you.

In order to promote a more active participation in your learning, we will incorporate ideas from an educational philosophy called inquiry-based learning (IBL). Loosely speaking, IBL is a student-centered method of teaching mathematics that engages students in sense-making activities. Students are given tasks requiring them to solve problems, conjecture, experiment, explore, create, and communicate. Rather than showing facts or a clear, smooth path to a solution, the instructor guides and mentors students via well-crafted problems through an adventure in mathematical discovery. Effective IBL courses encourage deep engagement in rich mathematical activities and provide opportunities to collaborate with peers (either through class presentations or group-oriented work). If you want to learn more about IBL, read my blog post titled What the Heck is IBL?

Much of the course will be devoted to students presenting their proposed solutions/proofs on the board and a significant portion of your grade will be determined by how much mathematics you produce. I use the word “produce” because I believe that the best way to learn mathematics is by doing mathematics. Someone cannot master a musical instrument or a martial art by simply watching, and in a similar fashion, you cannot master mathematics by simply watching; you must do mathematics!

Furthermore, it is important to understand that solving genuine problems is difficult and takes time. You shouldn’t expect to complete each problem in 10 minutes or less. Sometimes, you might have to stare at the problem for an hour before even understanding how to get started. In fact, solving difficult problems can be a lot like the clip from the Big Bang Theory located below.

In this course, everyone will be required to

  • read and interact with course notes on your own;
  • write up quality solutions/proofs to assigned problems;
  • present solutions/proofs on the board to the rest of the class;
  • participate in discussions centered around a student’s presented solution/proof;
  • call upon your own prodigious mental faculties to respond in flexible, thoughtful, and creative ways to problems that may seem unfamiliar on first glance.

As the semester progresses, it should become clear to you what the expectations are. This will be new to many of you and there may be some growing pains associated with it. For more details, see the syllabus.

Dana C. Ernst

Mathematics & Teaching

  Northern Arizona University
  Flagstaff, AZ
  Google Scholar
  Impact Story

Current Courses

  MAT 220: Math Reasoning
  MAT 320: Foundations of Math

About This Site

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  Unless stated otherwise, content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

  The views expressed on this site are my own and are not necessarily shared by my employer Northern Arizona University.

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