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Chuck Carney
IU School of Education
ccarney@indiana.edu
812-876-8027

Last modified: Tuesday, July 24, 2007

IU, Purdue, Air Force Academy

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 24, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Three plus three still equals six, but in today's world, simple algebra and calculus isn't enough to make sense of an ever-expanding number of complex systems.

That's why more than 150 scholars from around 20 countries are on the Indiana University campus this week for the International Community of Teachers of Mathematical Modeling and Applications (ICTMA) biannual conference. IU is co-hosting the conference along with the Institute for P-12 Engineering Research and Learning (INSPIRE) at Purdue University and the United States Air Force Academy through Thursday (July 26) at the Indiana Memorial Union.

ICTMA's mission is to promote applications and modeling in all areas of mathematics education. The conference organizer, IU's Richard Lesh, said the aim of this week's sessions is to address a growing need for students to learn not just mathematical skills but also an entirely new way of mathematical thinking.

Lesh, head of the Learning Sciences program in the IU School of Education, said that traditional math education tends to isolate students, keeping them away from the tools they would use in real-world applications.

"More and more fields do involve mathematical thinking," said Lesh. "They need people who can work in groups. They need people who can work on problems that take multiple steps and use tools."

Each of the hosting institutions comes to the ICTMA conference table for a different reason. According to Lesh, IU long has been known as a center for "thinking about how people think in order to use mathematics," particularly because of the work of longtime mathematics professor Maynard Thompson, mathematics education professor Frank Lester and others.

Purdue's stellar math and engineering programs make it a natural co-host of a conference to address new ways of thinking about math.

The Air Force Academy, however, is partnering for an additional reason. Its engineering, science and mathematics programs are internationally recognized, but administrators worry that its graduates need an increasingly complicated set of skills for today's world, according to Lesh.

"The Air Force Academy came to us with a problem," Lesh said. "They said 'our cadets come in here; they're smart kids. They come out knowing more, but they get worse on absolutely every scale at being good problem solvers, at being creative.'

"They know more and can function less, in a way," continued Lesh. "And they're very worried, because the person that they need in the military for the future, isn't somebody who just follows rules. They need to understand those [rules] and be able to create their own flow of them. "

Faculty and graduate students from all three schools are presenting during the conference. Representatives of the IU School of Education and the departments of mathematics, psychological and brain sciences, anthropology and psychology also will participate.

Lesh said that understanding the complex systems of today and the future through mathematics is vital.

"From communications systems, to weather systems, to gadgets -- if we don't understand systems, we're going to be behind," he said. "And the mathematics that it takes to do that isn't formal mathematics, maybe, of algebra and calculus that people are used to. It's often a new kind of mathematics and new levels of mathematical thinking."

More about the ICTMA conference and this week's program is available at http://site.educ.indiana.edu/ictma-13/home.aspx.

Media Outlets: the following comments are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Website at http://education.indiana.edu/audio.html.

Lesh tells why the Air Force Academy became interested in this week's conference:

"The Air Force Academy is a good example...where they came to us with a problem and they said 'our cadets come in here; they're smart kids. They come out knowing more, and they get worse on absolutely every scale of being good problem solvers, of being creative.' They know more and can function less, in a way. And they're very worried, because the person that they need in the military just like other things, for the future, isn't somebody who just follows rules. They need to understand those and be able to create their own flow of them. So having them engaged helps us get on the forefront of things."

Lesh says it's vital to learn modern adaptations of mathematics skills:

"From communications systems, to weather systems, to gadgets -- if we don't understand systems, you're going to be behind. And the mathematics that it takes to do that isn't formal mathematics maybe of algebra and calculus that people are used to. It's often a new kind of mathematics and new levels of mathematical thinking."

Lesh describes the new kind of mathematical thinking that's needed:

"More and more fields do involve mathematical thinking. If it does, they'll tell you it's a new kind of mathematical thinking. They need people who can work in groups, they need people who can work on problems that take multiple steps, and use tools. And yet, we're training kids for -- we keep them in isolation, we have them deprived of using any tools as though it were cheating to use these tools when everybody knows that as soon as you try to use a spreadsheet, even, you have to think more mathematically, not less."