Monday, May 12, 2014

Newton and Leibniz

I took calculus twice during my education. (Well, three times, if you count the summer in grad school when I laboriously worked through a book from the library, reading it and taking notes).

I passed both times I "officially" took it, and earned a 3 on the Calc A/B AP exam. Which isn't GOOD but which isn't quite failing, either. (FWIW: I also took the English Lit, French Language and Literature, American History, and Biology exams, and earned 5s - the top grade at that time -  on all of them. So I think I had generally pretty good education in high school; it's just something about calculus didn't stick)

And yet, I remember almost nothing of calculus, despite repeated exposure, other than some vague handwavy things about rotating a figure around an axis when you integrate. It seems so bizarre to me that I could pass a class (well, okay, with a C+, which was the lowest grade I ever earned in anything in college or grad school) and remember almost nothing of it.

And that bothers me. My general reaction to something that's "hard" or that I don't understand is to say to myself, "You're smart. You should be able to get this."

But still - I remember almost nothing of calculus, and that feels kind of scandalous for someone who (a) teaches a stats class, where some of the derivations of the operations do call upon calculus and (b) teaches stuff like population growth rates, where "little r" is essentially a derivative.

I have a few books on the shelf, picked up over the years, in the hopes that one will re-teach me calculus so it sticks. I think I need to find a "....for life scientists" book, and one that has a lot of examples that apply to what I do. I learn mathy stuff best when I can see an application for it. (That is probably why I'm good at stats: I can see how you use the different methods to answer questions or to analyze data). I think the problem with calculus for me was rather then using explicitly life-science examples (like finding little-r) that I would get, the person teaching would wave their hands and talk about measuring instantaneous speed rather than driving for an hour and using how far you'd gone. And I admit, this is where I'm a bit of a smart aleck: I would think, "Why not just look at the speedometer, then? That would be easier." So I kind of shut down over stuff.

I also kind of shut down because it seemed like there were all these rules about how you did stuff, and the "why" of those rules never seemed to be explained - it was more "just do this" rather than "this is why you do this." And again - I don't do well with just doing stuff by rote without really understanding why. And I could never remember the rules all that well because I didn't see the why.  But as I remember, that was how it was presented to us: crank through these calculations and get a number, don't worry about why you're doing it or how a real scientist might actually use it.

I will say I probably didn't have the best teachers: in high school, the men's track coach (who also filled the Dean of Students role), so part of the class was spent talking about sports and sometimes part was spend dispelling rumors about who had gotten into trouble most recently. And in college, it was a TA - he was American so I didn't have to deal with a heavy accent (though I'm pretty good with most accents) but he was also newly-married, the class was at 1 pm, and he was often (ahem) late at getting back onto campus after lunch. (and yes, we made ribald jokes about that, though never to his face). And he wasn't a particularly inspiring teacher. And I've often done fine with people generally recognized to be "not so good" teachers. But I just struggled with calc.

Anyway, when the Manga Guides to stuff came out, I bought the calculus one. These are comic-book stories (they tend to be less the giant-robot kind of manga than they are the magical-girl or career-girl type of manga, at least from the couple - molecular biology, biochemistry, and calculus - that I've seen. I used the molecular bio and biochem ones to quickly review for Principles I the first time I taught it, and also as a way of trying to find "alternate" ways of explaining stuff). The calculus one features a young woman going to work for a "branch office"  of a newspaper (two people - the cute guy Seki (and I anticipate there will be romance, and very likely implied Noroko marries him after the story ends, that seems to be how the career-girl mangas go) and the chubby, unprepossessing (but very smart, as it turns out) Masui.

I've only finished the first chapter so far - introduction to derivatives - and was either taught new or reminded of something I had totally forgot: a derivative is the "local" slope of a line, when the line isn't just plain old "y=mx+b." They talk about the idea of approximating the curve "locally" with a tangent line, and that's what a derivative is.

And I understand that. And I feel kind of stupid that I hadn't internalized the idea that derivative = local slope before in all my attempts with calculus, but I don't remember the books I used having the same types of diagrams that this one does. I admit I'm still shaky on the rules of how you compute a derivative for higher order functions, but maybe another book will help with that. (And I'm wondering, fearfully, if maybe I need to go back to some aspects of algebra - another class I had problems with parts of).

So anyway. Once I finish this introduction to calc, I really want to find something like a "practical calculus" or "calculus for life sciences people" book and read it, and maybe FINALLY FINALLY understand how this actually works, and not feel so much of a fraud when I talk about "well, if calculus were a pre-req for this class I'd be showing you how to take the derivative here, but it isn't, so I won't" without letting on that I'd really struggle to take a derivative there....

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