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math for nonscientists??

  • To: mathgroup at
  • Subject: math for nonscientists??
  • From: elbert at
  • Date: Tue, 21 Jun 1994 16:16:47 -0400

Hi Mathgroupers-
I am soliciting help and advice looking for materials to teach basic
mathematics to adults who somehow missed out and are now faced with
trying to learn some basic science and need sort-of remedial math
help.  The course will be within a masters program in Earth Science And
Environmental Policy that we run here at Johns Hopkins.  THe program
basically caters to non-science folks who work in the environmental
policy sector by teaching them some science and a bit of how
science and policy can (should!) go together.  Most of the science in the
program is limited to precalculus math although we discuss plenty of
models that involve differential equations.  What we have found is that
a fair number of our students are classic math avoiders and so have
grown up without really understanding basic algebra nad trigonometry, any
statistics, and the kind of math understanding it takes to look at
something inherently quatitative and figure out how to solve it.  Some of
them can't even figure out which buttons to push on their own calculators
when asked to solve things like 6x+2=2x-4.  These are bright people,
mind you, and people with good transcripts from recognized colleges and
often times, several years of work experience.  it is a bit scary to
think they got out of high school without such knowledge...although the
truth may be that they had the knowledge and it has somehow atrophied.

In any case...I am working on ways to remedy the situation and am
putting together a course based on trying to engender understanding
of mathematics using sort of a discovery approach with mathematica.
Although they don't need nearly a fraction of the power of mathematica,
I tend to think that I'll give them the best tool I can find and
hope that they continue to find uses for it beyond the immediate course and
even the degree program.

So...I would love any direction anyone can offer.  I am especially interested
in finding a good text book (which doesn't have to say anything about
Mathematica...I can teach that part without problem)...I think these 
students really need a book to follow closely.  Does anyone know of
good books on basic math for such a group?  I'd like it to be mostly
example and problem oriented with examples from simple chemistry, physics
and geology (oh, ecology too of course) or at least things that folks
can relate to a bit.  Does anyone have notebooks or course material they'd
like to share...or even just random advice??

Thanks for any and all help....please respond directly to me and I can
summarize things to the group to avoid excessive traffic about something
most peopl might find peripheral.

Thanks again-
David Elbert
Johns Hopkins University
elbert at

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