Monday, March 17, 2008

Mathematical modeling & Me

This semester I have been working on modifying a published model for Chip's class. What does that mean? Basically, I'm taking a generalized model and adding/removing/adjusting the parameters to make the model fit the plant system we're working on. The system is one in which the other person I'm working with will do her research. I'm not as invested in this project as I am in the other things I have going on this semester, but I find the process of developing this model both useful and fascinating.

Today we had another meeting with Chip to discuss the progress. We're making baby steps in the right direction. We're just about to analyze its stability in the most simple form. Then we can add more species and parameters. Chip has been walking us through the process and clearly describing what we need to do at each step. I really appreciate this because my grasp of the concepts and tools is a bit tenuous. The ease with which Chip understands, develops, and analyzes models is fascinating and still somewhat mysterious to me. When we sit in those meetings with him, though, I am so amazed at how much I've learned in the past year, so I'd like to describe my evolving relationship with calculus.

While I was applying to grad school, I rediscovered why they always emphasize in school that calculus is critical for science- not even ecologists are outside the applications of calculus (I know now that they're right in the thick of it!). One of my weaknesses was (is) math. Many of the people I was interested in working with do a fair amount of ecological modeling of which I had basically zero experience and a very limited understanding. Although part of me just wanted to ignore the deficit and try to get around without it, I knew that it would be in my best interest to put mathphobia aside and work on my weakness.

The opportunity to do just that appeared when a friend told me about EcoMath Camp. I applied, was accepted (did they actually see my B- in calc I?), and found myself to be a small fish in a not-so-big pond of much larger, albeit friendly, fish. It was incredibly challenging for me since my one semester of calculus was so many years ago, but I was able to learn a tremendous amount at my level. EcoMath Camp gave me the confidence to take and survive Chip's population ecology class last fall. Chip's encouragement of relatively mathematically-deficient students like myself combined with his incredible teaching style are why I am in his game theory class this semester.

I'm proud of myself for being able to understand and develop my own model, because this is something I could not have imagined a year ago. I usually know which questions to ask now which is a huge step in the right direction. But, I feel like my comprehension of the 'big picture' is ahead of my mathematical tool kit to actually create the big picture. Today I wrestled for an hour with a derivative that took Chip 3 minutes. I know, he has decades more experience with this, but still.

I think my insecurity with calculus goes way back to 7th grade. My mom (hi mom) has worked in elementary and middle school math education for my entire life. In 4th grade I spent a short time in the accelerated math class but went back to the regular one out of frustration with long division. I did well in the regular math class until junior high. My mom thought it would be good for me to take Geometry in 8th grade, and that I could do Algebra I over the summer at home with her help. Well, I vaguely remember reading about parabolas in the back yard that summer but I didn't do anywhere near as much work as I would've for a normal class.

[Mom- I don't want you to think I blame you for my math insecurity-not at all. A whole combination of factors in high school made my math experience worse when it had the potential to be much better. You have always encouraged me in math and I would not have been accepted to EcoMath Camp if you hadn't helped me improve my essay, so you have been a great positive role model. I also think I'm good at spatial reasoning thanks to those base 10 blocks.]

My shaky foundation in Algebra I became apparent during Algebra II in my freshman year of HS. I had the heaviest possible course load and a flighty teacher who put me to sleep every afternoon (my first case of classroom narcolepsy). I struggled with the quadratic formula and dropped from the honors math track to the regular math track in the middle of the year. I stayed in the regular track so I was 1-2 years younger than most of the students in those classes. I took AP Statistics my junior year and didn't take math at all my senior year. I took one semester of calculus in college, in which I got a B- thanks to help from Jon. Then I spent the next few years hardly thinking about calculus, until I landed back in a classroom last summer with a room full of mathematically gifted undergrads.

So why did I just tell you a brief history of my relationship with math? I'm not exceptionally mathematically talented and I may never be able to do complicated derivatives in 3 minutes, but I am willing to try. You should be too. Especially if it's not your strength, pursue it. Find a great teacher, friend, or tutor, and look for ways that the tools can be applied to ecological problems. Applications are the glue that make the math stick instead of abstractly floating around in your brain without an anchor. I want to encourage everyone who is considering a degree in ecology to take more math. Don't be mathphobic! You can do it, and you will use it.

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