Fiction, Fun and Fractions – Paul Kates

Today I’m recommending some holiday gift books for youngsters in late primary school through to high school — books that weave together, as the title of this post suggests, fiction, fun and fractions.  Each book finds its own way to free math from the classroom and bring it into the richer world of life and imagination to let children see and explore some of the magic, surprise and beauty in mathematics. It is my hope that some of the anxiety children may have about math will be replaced with fun and wonder.

Number Devil: a Mathematical Adventure  by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, 264 pages.

Robert, a boy of 12, is visited in his dreams by a cheeky devil who likes to talk about mathematics, which is not one of Robert’s favorite subjects at all. But Robert begins to like his imaginary discussions with his nightly visitor and comes to understand more of the mathematics he has seen before in class.  Over 12 nights of dreaming the devil shows Robert a wide range of mathematics topics (e.g. fractions, Fibonacci numbers, primes, series, etc) each explained in simple and engaging ways. And that is the goal of the book: putting fun and math together.

The Man Who Counted: A Collection of Mathematical Adventures by Malba Tahan, 256 pages.

This is a book that can be read aloud to a young child or read alone by anyone who enjoys an Arabian Nights fable. Thirty-four bite-sized episodes in the life of Beremiz Samir, The Man Who Counted, charm you with their elegance in both story and mathematical expression. Each episode presents an opportunity for the wise and learned Beremiz to call upon his mathematical ability to help someone in need or outwit troublemakers. The very young will enjoy the adventures alone until they are old enough to take interest in the simple, engaging puzzles embedded in the heart of each story, for this is a book to be read more than once.

The Math Olympian by Richard Hoshino, 482 pages.

This book is aimed at students from middle school to high school. Students who like math will learn a lot about problem solving to help them in their studies and maybe inspire them to enter the world of mathematics outside the confines of school. The book is constructed around five contest-level math questions. In trying to solve the questions, the main character, Bethany, passes on her mentors’ advice about how to understand mathematics. But the book is more than a very good primer about problem solving and math contests.

Students who don’t like math will be drawn into the story if they have a friend like Bethany, someone who does enjoy math. Bethany is excited about problem solving.  She puts her heart into doing the thing she loves and dreams about, becoming a Math Olympian. At the same time, Bethany is growing through her teen years like all her friends. The book is Bethany’s story, told in her own voice, about a struggle that many teens will find overlaps their own stories in different ways.

Letters to a Young Mathematician by Ian Stewart, 224 pages.

In a series of 21 fictitious letters to Meg, Professor Stewart addresses questions about the nature of mathematics and mathematicians, and how to succeed in an academic career in university mathematics, from undergrad to tenure. With humour, common sense and insight the book answers many questions of interest and concern to students:

  • Why do math?
  • How do I learn math?
  • How do I create math?
  • How do I teach math?

My reason for including this book is to help students who are moving from high school to university and need to know how they can do well in their new, more challenging environment. The first half of the book is meant for them.

I hope you find something in this book list to interest a youngster who likes to be read stories or an older child who may or may not be too keen on math.  I hope the readers find the charm, delight and passion in these books that I see.

P.S. Allow me to add a book list site named Mathematical Fiction you may not have heard of that caters to works of fiction about mathematics and mathematicians.

Thank goodness for the slackers! — Marcel Pinheiro

Even in the modern age of STEM-education, a well-informed and considerate professoriate can still let their egos get the better of them. With shifting trends in pedagogy towards student-centric and, gasp, evidence-based decisions in instructional planning, we can easily fall victim to thinking we are leaving no one behind. We can imagine our classrooms full of well-prepared students, ready to fire on all Blooms’ cylinders, each day. It is, of course, midterm season, so we empirically know this is not true. Nonetheless, as we prepare for our next flipped session, scaffolded learning task, or class discussion we set our expectations high and count on eliciting random acts of higher-order thinking in our students. Continue reading Thank goodness for the slackers! — Marcel Pinheiro

Supporting Student Mental Health in the Classroom – Kristin Brown

Student behind a pile of text books.
Image used under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license.

Student mental health is an issue that is close to my heart. During my graduate studies, I co-founded Stand Up to Stigma, a student-led mental health initiative on campus partnered with Counselling Services and Health Services. I also created a CTE workshop regarding how instructors and TAs can support student mental health. I wrote a similar post to this one more than two years ago, but given the recent creation of the University of Waterloo’s President’s Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health and Mental Health Wellness Day this week, I think it’s time to revisit it. Student mental health has been on the minds of many instructors and TAs; this blog post provides some of the resources available to help students in distress and promote mental well-being in the classroom.

 What’s the issue?

A recent survey conducted by the American College Health Association (2016) highlights the current issues University of Waterloo (n=1,955) and Ontario post-secondary students (n=25,168) are facing with respect to mental health.

Within the past year, percentage of
post-secondary students who had…
University of Waterloo Ontario
Felt academics were traumatic or very difficult to handle 58% 59.3%
Felt overwhelming anxiety 60.8% 65.4%
Felt so depressed that it was difficult to function 44.5% 46.1%
Been diagnosed or treated by a professional for anxiety 14.2% 18.3%
Been diagnosed or treated by a professional for depression 11.4% 14.7%
Seriously considered suicide 5.0% 4.4%

Continue reading Supporting Student Mental Health in the Classroom – Kristin Brown

Third time is the charm: Management Engineering Case Days

MSCI 100, a first year Management Engineering course taught by Professor Ken McKay, introduces students to the main concepts of the discipline in their first term. The course’s main goals are to introduce the core principles that students will apply throughout their undergraduate studies and to prepare them for their first co-operative education term.

The course was pedagogically redesigned based on including authentic self-directed learning, and providing students with opportunities to develop their professional skills (especially teamwork, project planning, time management and critical thinking). Professional Skills and Communication were taught within the context of the specific discipline as recommended in [1]. The overhauled course is composed of several activities/deliverables for students to experience multiple constructive failure-recovery cycles as a way to teach students the advantages of making mistakes [2].

In this blog post I will talk about the ‘case days’ experience, one of the cornerstones of the course that I helped plan and facilitate with the course’s teaching team. Three ‘case days’ were designed to provide an intense and deep learning experience regarding problem-solving, teamwork, and project management. On each case day, students, in teams, were given the case study at 8:30 am, their final product was due by 4:30 pm. There were no other courses, lectures, labs, or tutorials on these days. The requirements were vague, the problem was ill-defined, and the students were given ample opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Furthermore, not everything they needed to know had been taught in class and they had to teach themselves new material during these days. The students were expected to meet specific deadlines throughout the day and were given extensive rubrics. The student teams were assigned advisors (staff and faculty volunteers) who provided guidance throughout the day. The role of the advisors purposely diminished each case day. The teams eventually met requirements on their own, without any hand holding. Continue reading Third time is the charm: Management Engineering Case Days

Learning to Learn – Paul Kates

person studyingNew undergraduates are already successful students when they arrive at university.  They come with learning habits developed over a decade’s time at school where “work harder” is a commonly followed injunction for improvement or to remedy declining achievement.

But learning at a university is more challenging than high school.  Students face increasing rigour combined with more and denser material all at a quicker pace.  Can students at university work smarter, making better use of their limited time? Continue reading Learning to Learn – Paul Kates

Five easy ways to support your students’ professional development – Charis Enns

5621810815_185b86a50d_bIt is that time of year when instructors receive a greater number of reference letter requests, as undergraduate students prepare applications for jobs, graduate school or professional degree programs. I have received a few of these requests from former students as of late, which has led me to reflect on ways that I could assist students in achieving their long-term career and academic goals in addition to writing letters. Although a positive reference letter may help students achieve their goals, there are many other simple steps that I could take to further support students’ professional development. Here are five practical suggestions that I have (or plan to) implement in my own teaching, in order to further support my students’ professional development: Continue reading Five easy ways to support your students’ professional development – Charis Enns

Graduate Student Teaching on Campus

As a Graduate Instructional Developer who works mainly with CTE’s Certificate in University Teaching (CUT) program, I have the privilege of observing graduate students teach in classrooms across campus. Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to observe over 35 classes taught by graduate students in all six faculties. I have been incredibly impressed by the quality of teaching by graduate students. They have taken concepts from CTE workshops (e.g., active learning, group work, formative assessment) and applied them directly in their teaching. They are using innovative teaching strategies, technologies, and engaging students in their lessons. The University of Waterloo community should be proud of graduate students’ dedication to, and passion for, teaching.

So how can we support graduate students in continuing to develop their teaching skills?

  • I think many of us would agree the best way to improve our teaching is to practice. In some departments, it’s difficult for graduate students to access teaching opportunities, but guest lectures are a great way to gain experience. If you’re teaching, consider asking the graduate students you supervise and/or your Teaching Assistants whether they’re interested in giving a guest lecture in the course.
  • If you know a talented Teaching Assistant or graduate student instructor, please nominate them for an award! Information regarding Graduate Student Teaching Awards can be difficult to find, so I’ve compiled a list here. If you know of any that are missing from this list, please post a comment and we will add them.


Graduate Student Teaching Awards

A) University-wide teaching awards

Amit & Meena Chakma Award for Exceptional Teaching by a Student (deadline: February)

B) Faculty-wide teaching awards

C) Department teaching awards

  • Biology – “Outstanding Graduate/Undergraduate Teaching Assistantship Award” (no link available)


Teaching Resources for Graduate Students: