Informal Description of the Course

This class is quite likely very different than other math classes you may have taken. Given this, it's important to know what to expect, so you know what you're getting in to.

  • This class is an introductory math class. I will review topics as necessary and there will be ample opportunity to get help from me and math tutors outside of class. However, if math is a subject you really, really struggle with, this might not be the course for you. If you were ok at math in high school, but didn't like it and/or have forgotten most of it, then this is probably an ok course for you. On the other hand, if you had significant difficulty with algebra, and feel like it's something you've never understood, this course might be frustrating for you.
  • This course is somewhat difficult to describe. I think the most important pre-requisite is to approach the material with an open mind and a sense of exploration and adventure. With a little intellectual initiative I think you will find many opportunities to make connections between the material of this course and other interests of yours.
  • I've taught this class nine times in the last twelve years. So I have a pretty sense of the general contours of the course. However, every year is different, as more than any other class I teach, this course depends on the contributions of the students.
  • If you have taken calculus before, I strongly recommend that you not take this class.
  • Falling behind in this course is not a good idea. If you're confused about something, it's very important that you seek help sooner rather than later. There are many people around who can offer help. However, we can't offer assistance if we don't know who needs it when. You need to take responsibility to seek help if you need it. On a related note ...
  • I do not expect all of the homework assignments to be easy; I don't expect you to be able to sit down and do them right away. Don't let yourself get frustrated -- I strongly suggest working with others and seeking help if you need it.
  • You will be writing papers for this course. These papers will be short response papers and can be entirely non-technical. I have found that most students enjoy the chance to reflect upon the reading; a few students, however, find writing about math and science to be uncomfortable and/or difficult.
  • In many traditional math classes the instructor shows you how to do a bunch of problems, you go home and obediently practice the stuff your instructor showed you, and then you take a test. This class will not be like that -- there will be some traditional-style homework, but there will be many other exercises too.
  • Some of the homework assignments are more like laboratory exercises. That is, rather than doing a quick problem and getting a simple answer, I'll ask you to explore some stuff, make observations, and look for patterns. Frequently these assignments will have open-ended questions. You will enjoy these assignments more (and do better on them) if you approach them as you would a good laboratory exercise in a science class.
  • This class is not a systematic review of algebra or trigonometry; it is not explicitly designed to prepare you for further math classes. Nevertheless, you will review and strengthen your understanding of algebra and functions by taking this course.
  • The exact syllabus for this is quite flexible; feedback is encouraged, and will help make the class better.
  • If you find any errors or typos in my book, please let me know.
  • The material we'll be reading about in Gleick's book, and the work we'll do in my book and in class will shift in and out of phase with each other. The two books don't cover the same topics in the same order. In the past this hasn't been a problem; it's just something to be aware of.
  • In terms of the math stuff we'll be doing, it will take a few weeks to get to the chaos material. Before we do, what we're doing might seem odd. The initial exercises we do might seem boring or irrelevant, but this phase of the course is essential groundwork for what's to follow.