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Polynomials, Paris and persuading young people to enjoy mathematics

In his "State of the Union" address Jan. 31, President Bush called on American children to take more math and science courses that "are rigorous enough to compete with other nations."

Dr. Jerry Lodder, NMSU professor of mathematics (NMSU courtesy photo)

Bush proposed training 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science, using 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms, and finding assistance for young students who struggle with math so they would have a better shot at high-paying jobs when they are older.

If more challenging problems were provided to students, they would be more motivated to study mathematics and the sciences, said Jerry Lodder, professor of mathematics at New Mexico State University.

Lodder, who has held visiting professor positions in Paris and Strasbourg, France, will show how algebra moved across time from culture to culture and how one group of people built upon another group's work toward the solution of polynomial equations in a colloquium called "Algebra Through the Ages: Solving the Unsolvable."

The event, part of the NMSU College of Arts and Sciences Spring 2006 Colloquia, will take place at 3:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 14, in Room 107 of the university's Science Hall.

"Mathematics certainly has been a passion of the pioneers who developed the subject," Lodder said. "They never saw it just as a routine or a procedure. They were keenly motivated toward solving some problem, were very inspired by their subject and felt very close to their subject."

Lodder's teaching and research have been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation. These grants have helped him explore the use of history in teaching mathematics.

"A historical approach helps to overcome math phobia or math anxiety," Lodder maintains. "History provides three things - the context for why people were interested in studying mathematics, direction because we can see how subjects evolved, and motivation for why we would want to study a subject since it can be seen more easily through history than by reading a standard textbook."

For example, it's not helpful to view algebra and geometry as separate subjects because the development of one drove the development of the other, Lodder said. The Greek geometry was interpreted later in terms of algebra and the solution of equations.

"People may not feel confident with mathematics, but it's easily learned once you understand the reason for it and get away from a formal, procedural approach to it."

Other colloquia presentations, all scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. in Room 107 of the NMSU Science Hall, include the following topics, presenters and dates:

"Inventing Los Alamos" - Jon Hunner, Department of History, Feb. 21, 2006
"Flying Over Everest: How Do Birds Do It?" - Marvin Bernstein, Department of Biology, Feb. 28, 2006
"Frank Zappa was Right! Perspectives on the Future of Jazz and Classical Music" - James Shearer, Department of Music, March 14, 2006
"Crustal Extension and Historical Earthquakes in Central Greece" - Greg Mack, Department of Geological Sciences, March 28, 2006
"Engine and Enigma: A Learner's Journey" - Kevin McIlvoy, Department of English, April 11, 2006
"Saving the Ranch: Conservation Easements in New Mexico" - Jack Wright, Department of Geography, April 18, 2006
"Mexican Descent Youth at the Crossroads of Sameness and Difference: A Mosaic of Youth Cultures and Border Identity" - Cynthia Bejarano, Department of Criminal Justice, April 25, 2006