Teaching is the opportunity to share the joy and passion of the material with others who might engage it. In the classroom, my first goal is to extend to my students the intuitive understanding of the material. As students approach economics and the underlying mathematics, some are easily intimidated and retreat from participation and learning. Hands-on instruction is an effective approach for reaching that intuitive understanding, but not always practical.
I began teaching with the University of Maryland University College in undergraduate mathematics and statistics. My belief that mathematics is a fundamental life skill, on par with reading and writing, has earned me a reputation as a “math evangelist.” Working principally with online students, it is difficult to provide students the feedback necessary to support and nurture a healthy mathematical skill set. I tried several approaches to work with students settling on developing a number of custom interactive tools using Wolfram|Alpha and computable documents to use directly in our digital classroom. These provide manipulable examples of many college algebra and business mathematics concepts and encourage the intuitive understanding that comes from hands-on learning. These have been well received by both students and my fellow faculty leading me to present them at the 2014 Joint Mathematics Meeting.
At the opposite extreme, I have also taught graduate public finance and financial management courses at the University of Baltimore MPA program. In my first two semesters, I used a research project, culminating in a paper where the students had to explore the financial or economic effects of a policy or program that interests them. Research-based learning is excellent for methodological instruction and this has encouraged them to understand that finances and economics underlie much policy. However, I want to take my instruction outside the classroom.
My graduate students have applied their learning to make Baltimore a better place. One semester, in a financial management class, my students started a nonprofit from scratch. Most of an organization’s startup is in financial management and accounting. For a nonprofit, the start-up phase also includes managing tax-exempt status, a nontrivial task. For many students, this service activity will be the biggest community leadership opportunity they have had. I was fortunate to have the department’s support and encouragement in this unconventional approach to teaching financial management. Another semester, in a public finance course, my students analyzed policies on nutrition and health as part of a University-wide thematic focus on food deserts in Baltimore.
In all of my classes, I like to use specific examples from the real world to connect the material to their life. In an undergraduate mathematics course, this may involve something as common as measurements for cooking, or an analysis of a baseball player, a popular topic in business mathematics. For graduate students, that may involve putting a slide from my dissertation research on the screen to show how pricing nonmarket goods can work outside of a contrived example. Regardless, my goal is to connect the students and the material through familiar applications showing the value of lifelong application.
Image by Luke Jones.