This week, I want to talk more about the overall structure of the Mathematics and Digital Art (MDA) course I’ll be teaching in the fall. I won’t have time to address specifics about content today, but I’ll begin with that next week.

As I mentioned last week, because I can’t require students to bring a laptop to class, MDA will meet in a computer laboratory. Here is my actual classroom:

Each day, there will be some time in class — usually at least half the 65-minute period — for students to work at their comptuers. This is a typical 16-week course meeting three times a week. (Though courses at USF are four credits, hence the longer class time each day.)

Because the course is project-based, there are homework assignments and projects due, but no exams. There may be an occasional homework quiz on the mathematics, where I let students use their notes. I prefer this method to collecting homework, since there are always issues of too much copying. Because I typically change the numbers in homework quiz problems, it is difficult to do well on this type of quiz if all you do is copy your homework from someone else.

Instead of a Final Exam, there is a major project due at the end of the course. So the first half of the semester — roughly eight weeks — covers a breadth of topics so that students have lots of options when writing a proposal for their Final Project.

Their proposals are due mid-semester, so I have time to evaluate and discuss them, as well as make suggestions. I try to make sure each project is appropriate for each student — enough to challenge them, but not frustrate them. Of course there is flexibility for projects to undergo changes along the way, but the proposal allows for a very concrete starting point.

In the second half of the semester, most weeks will include one day for working on Final Projects. Not only does this emphasize the importance of the projects, but it also lets me see their progress and perhaps alter the direction they’re going if necessary.

The other main focus of the second half of the semester is the use of Processing to make movies. Because most students will not have studied programming before, I need to make sure there is plenty of time for them to be successful. We’ll need to take it slowly.

Of course this means that students will not be able to include the use of Processing in their course proposals, but that doesn’t mean they can’t adapt their project along the way to include the use of Processing if they want to. This is a necessary trade-off, however, since front-loading the course with a discussion of Processing would mean sacrificing the breadth of topics covered. I like the students to see as much as possible before they write their Final Project proposals.

This is the broad structure of the course. There are a few other aspects of MDA which also deserve mention. Three weeks of the course are devoted to presentations. The idea here is twofold. First, there is the clear benefit of developing students’ public speaking abilities.

Second, because students will be giving presentations on papers from the Bridges archive (the archive of all papers presented in the Bridges conferences since 1998), they will need to find a paper on a topic of interest to themselves at a level they can understand. As there are over 1000 papers here, along with an ability to search using keywords, this should not pose a siginificant problem. Of course should a student have another source about mathematics and art they are keen to share, this would be acceptable as well.

Because the class size is small (13 students), it will feasible to have all students present in each of the three weeks. The first Presentation Week on Bridges papers will be about the sixth week of the semester, and the second will be about the eleventh week.

The third Presentation Week will be at the fourteenth week of the semester, but this time will be focused on Final Projects. I will invite mathematics, computer science, and art/design faculty to these presentations as well, and of course will let the students know this in advance. All presentations will be both peer-evaluated and evaluated by me.

There is also a plan to bring guest speakers from the Bay area into the classroom. I know a handful of mathematical artists in the area, so bringing in two or three speakers over the course of a semester would be feasible. This is one of the design features of the First-Year Seminar, incidentally — expose students to the larger San Francicso/Bay area community.

In addition, I can have a student assistant in the classroom as well. Nick, my student who is also going to the Bridges conference in Finland this year, will serve in that role. We’ve spent a semester in a directed study to prepare for the Bridges 2016 conference, so he has unique qualifications. I’ll talk more about Nick in a future post.

When teaching a programming course with a laboratory component, it is difficult to be able to get around to help all students in any given class period. Certainly some questions students ask have simple answers (as in a syntax fix), but others will require sitting down with a student for several minutes.

So it will be great to have Nick as an assistant, since that will allow two of us to circulate around the classroom during the laboratory part of the class. The benefit to students will be obvious, and with the small class size, I’m confident they’ll get the attention they need.

Finally, I left the last week (just two class periods) open for special topics. Given all the demands of a first-semester student just before Final Exam week, I thought it would be nice for them to have a short breather. I’ll take suggestions for topics from the students, with the Bridges papers they presented on as a good starting point.

So that’s what the course looks like, broadly. Next week, I’ll begin a week-by-week discussion of the mathematical/artistic content of the course. I also intend to post weekly or biweekly while the course is going on — course design is a lot easier in theory than in practice, and I’ll be able to share pitfalls and triumphs in real time!

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