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Just a different vocabulary

Steve Charles—I stopped by math professor Mike Axtell’s office last week to see how much he’s enjoyed working with the Department’s Algebra Institute students this summer ("a lot") and how the experience differed from teaching the rest of the year ("I’m working with them on problems I may not have the solution to, so students have to get used to my being a colleague and advisor, not necessarily the guy with the answers").

I told him I’d enjoyed photographing the group, both as they worked one-on-one with Mike, and during their presentations. I loved the energy and camaraderie among the students.

"Of course, all it was way over my head," I added

"It’s just a different vocabulary," Mike said. And he’s right. The teaching I saw in Mike’s office was the same intense, one-on-one interaction I’ve seen here in the offices of professors of biology, chemistry, philosophy, religion, political science, economics, and history.

Chemistry professor Scott Feller calls it "working one-on-one with a student on a problem with an unknown answer." He says it’s the heart of learning in science and research. It’s not far from the artistic process I’ve watched art professor Doug Calisch work through with his students. It was just a different vocabulary.

My friend Joe Warfel ’04 wrote a piece for Wabash Magazine in 2003 entitled "Why I Math." It was a wonderful essay about the beauty he saw in mathematics. I think I caught a reflection of that beauty in the eyes of these students.

The Algebra Institute ends today with a talk by the president of the Mathematical Association of America—a nice capstone on six-weeks of research these students from all over the country have done. We’ll have more about it in the Fall 2006 WM.

Photos: (top) President of the Mathematics Association of America Carl Cowen enjoys his visit with Algebra Institute students. (middle) Anne Duarte and Michael Martinez take a juggling break in Professor Axtell’s office. (Middle) Professor Axtell and Katy Haymaker work together on a problem.

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