An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 8)

Link to previous posts: Pt1 Pt2 Pt3 Pt4 Pt5 Pt6 Pt7

Last Friday was the final meeting of this class. The outside students from Claremont were not present as it was finals week.

The inside students wanted to do a bit of math and just chit chat. We spent about an hour thinking about Fermat’s theorem on the sum of two squares (the only odd primes that can be written as the sum of squares of two natural numbers are the ones that are one more than a multiple of 4). We wrote out a whole bunch of prime numbers on the board and then we all attempted to write them as the sum of two squares. Then, we looked at our work and tried to figure out which ones could be written as the sum of two squares and which couldn’t. It was pretty satisfying!

After we concluded our work on that problem, we chatted a bit about mathematics and how the students envisioned mathematics being a part of their lives. One student is leaving prison in just a few days. He said that he will be taking more classes to try to finish up his bachelor’s degree. Another student said that he intends to enroll in college when he gets out and work toward a degree in mechanical engineering. Another will parole in a few months and he wants to be a mathematics teacher. The inside students also had a lot of questions for me about what graduate studies in mathematics was like and what kind of research I do, we so chatted about that.

It was intensely sad to say goodbye. I really enjoyed spending time with each and every person in this course and we got to know each other in a way that rarely happens in my usual math classes.

In retrospect, I think the thing that I will take away the most is the way that this particular pedagogical approach (working in groups with very little direct instruction, letting students’ interests drive the course) felt so right for this setting (a course with both traditional college students and incarcerated students in a prison). It felt re-humanizing, joyful, and fun. My thoughts now turn to why I’m not also using similar strategies in my usual Harvey Mudd College classes.

What’s next for Inside Out at the Claremont Colleges? One unfortunate issue about our Inside Out program at the Claremont Colleges is that we’re limited right now by who is trained to teach Inside Out and who is available in any given semester. (For me, teaching Inside Out was something that I did on top of my regular teaching load, but others are able to get their Inside Out course counted as part of their regular teaching load.) The consequence is that the courses form a strange patchwork of unrelated courses.

One exciting development is that the Claremont Colleges are working toward the ability to offer inside students a bachelor’s degree in organizational studies starting next fall. The reason for the choice of organizational studies is that a community college that also is working in this facility is offering several associates degrees in psychology, politics, and business. So, this organizational studies BA would build on all three of those pathways nicely.

It would be great to be able to offer more advanced mathematics courses, but both sides of the supply and demand for such courses is not robust enough. So, for now, I will look forward to the next time that I get to offer this class again inside.

2 thoughts on “An Inside-Out Course on Number Theory (Pt 8)

  1. I’ve really enjoyed this series, Darryl. What do you think is the specific role that math played here? – vs the more general experience for the inside students of being taken seriously as thinkers by you and the outside students.

    • The liberating experience of teaching inside translates well in any discipline, but I think there was an extra sweetness to the course that came from the traumatic experiences that many students expressed having in their prior math classes. Students of all ages expressed how they generally did not experience mathematics classes as spaces in which they could experiment, collaborate, create but instead spaces where their bodies and minds were controlled to think and do certain things.

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