The Calculus Bottleneck

What if someone told you that learners in high-school don’t actually need calculus as a compulsory subject for a career in STEM? Surely I would disagree. After all, without calculus how will they understand many of the topics in the STEM. For example basic Newtonian mechanics? Another line of thought that might be put forth is that calculus allows learners to develop an interest in mathematics and pursue it as a career. But swell, nothing could be farther from truth. From what I have experienced there are two major categories of students who take calculus in high school. The first category would be students who are just out of wits about calculus, its purpose and meaning. They just see it as another infliction upon them without any significance. They struggle with remembering the formulae and will just barely pass the course (and many times don’t). These students hate mathematics, calculus makes it worse. Integration is opposite of differentiation: but why teach it to us?

The other major category of students is the one who take on calculus but with a caveat. They are the ones who will score in the 80s and 90s in the examination, but they have cracked the exam system per se. And might not have any foundational knowledge of calculus. But someone might ask how can one score 95/100 and still not have foundational knowledge of the subject matter? This is the way to beat the system. These learners are usually drilled in solving problems of a particular type. It is no different than chug and slug. They see a particular problem – they apply a rote learned method to solve it and bingo there is a solution. I have seen students labour “problem sets” — typically hundreds of problems of a given type — to score in the 90s in the papers. This just gives them the ability to solve typical problems which are usually asked in the examinations. Since the examination does not ask for questions based on conceptual knowledge – it never gets tested. Perhaps even their teachers if asked conceptual questions will not be able to handle them — it will be treated like a radioactive waste and thrown out — since it will be out of syllabus.

There is a third minority (a real minority, and may not be real!, this might just be wishful thinking) who will actually understand the meaning and significance of the conceptual knowledge, and they might not score in the 90s. They might take a fancy for the subject due to calculus but the way syllabus is structured it is astonishing that any students have any fascination left for mathematics. Like someone had said: the fascination for mathematics cannot be taught it must be caught. And this is exactly what MAA and NCTM have said in their statement about dropping calculus from high-school.

What the members of the mathematical community—especially those in the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)—have known for a long time is that the pump that is pushing more students into more advanced mathematics ever earlier is not just ineffective: It is counter-productive. Too many students are moving too fast through preliminary courses so that they can get calculus onto their high school transcripts. The result is that even if they are able to pass high school calculus, they have established an inadequate foundation on which to build the mathematical knowledge required for a STEM career. (emphasis added)

The problem stems from the fact that the foundational topics which are prerequisites for calculus are on shaky grounds. No wonder anything build on top of them is not solid. I remember having very rudimentary calculus in college chemistry, when it was not needed and high-flying into physical meaning of derivatives in physics which was not covered enough earlier. There is a certain mismatch between the expectations from the students and their actual knowledge of the discipline as they come to college from high-school.

Too many students are being accelerated, short-changing their preparation in and knowledge of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and other precalculus topics. Too many students experience a secondary school calculus course that drills on the techniques and procedures that will enable them to successfully answer standard problems, but are never challenged to encounter and understand the conceptual foundations of calculus. Too many students arrive at college Calculus I and see a course that looks like a review of what they learned the year before. By the time they realize that the expectations of this course are very different from what they had previously experienced, it is often too late to get up to speed.

Though they conclude that with enough solid conceptual background in these prerequisites it might be beneficial for the students to have a calculus course in the highschool.

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Learning to Learn

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 11.27.42 PM.png

Perhaps this should be the rule from the beginning…

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The problem with what is taught in schools

Many people have written on the problem of what is taught in schools and why children don’t like what they study. One of the major issue seems to be there is no direct relevance to what children are taught in the school and their own personal and social lives. The content in the school textbooks has been dissected of any meaningful connections that the children could make in their real lives. The school tasks are decontextualised so that they become insulated from the real world. The quote below very nicely captures what I wanted to say on this issue.

These kinds of situated-learning tasks are different from most school tasks, because school tasks are decontextualized. Imagine learning tennis by being told the rules and practicing the forehand, backhand, and serve without ever playing or seeing a tennis match. If tennis were taught that way, it would be hard to see the point of what you were learning. But in school, students are taught algebra and Shakespeare without cognitive apprenticeship being given any idea of how they might be useful in their lives. That is not how a coach would teach you to play tennis. A coach might first show you how to grip and swing the racket, but very soon you would be hitting the ball and playing games. A good coach would have you go back and forth between playing games and working on particular skills – combining global and situated learning with focused local knowledge.

Allan Collins – Cognitive Apprenticeship (The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences)

Papert too has some nice metaphors for this, and constructionism hence includes problems or projects which are personally meaningful to the learner so that they are contextualised withing the lives of the learners..

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Book Review: Ages in Chaos by Stephen Baxter

Ages in Chaos is a scientific biography of James Hutton by Stephen Baxter. Hutton was a Scottish scientist who also played his part in Scottish enlightenment. Hutton was the first to speculate on the idea deep time required for geological processes at the end of 1700s arguing with evidence he collected. He was trained as a medical doctor, practiced farming for 10 odd years and had continued his explorations of geology throughout. The prevalent theories of geology, called Neptunists, posited that water was the change agent. Hutton on the other hand posited that it was heat which was responsible for changes, hence Vulcanists. Also, another thing was that of time needed for this change. As others of his era, Hutton was deeply religious, like Newton, wanted to find evidence for creation as per bible.

During his time, especially popular was the idea of flood as per Bible, while the Earth was literally considered to be 6000 years old. This created a problem for Hutton, who was labelled to be atheist and heretic for suggesting that Earth is much older and that there was no design. But Hutton was a conformist and wanted to find a uniform evidence for all observable aspects. He was not like a modern scientist, as he is painted many times. The ideas were vehemently attacked on each point. Though he went to the field to find geological examples for this theory. James Watt, Black and John Playfair were his friends and provided him with evidence in the form of rock samples. During his lifetime, Hutton’s ideas will not find much audience. But due to his friends, his ideas sustained a a barrage of criticisms. Only in the next generation with Lyell this work would find acceptance. This idea of a deep time was crucial in formation Darwin’s theory.

The book reads well mostly, but at times a complete lack of illustrations in the forms of geological artefacats and maps (of Scotland) makes it difficult to read well.

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Book Review: Pendulum: Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science by Amir D. Aczel

The book traces Leon Foucault’s ingenious approach to solving the problem of providing a terrestrial proof of rotation of the Earth. The pendulum he devised oscillates in a constant plane, and if properly engineered (as he did) can actually show the rotation of the Earth. The demonstration is one the most visually impressive scientific experiments. Also, Foucault gave prediction, an equation which would tell us how the pendulum will behave at different parts of the Earth. The pure mathematicians and physicists alike were taken aback at this simple yet powerful demonstration of the proof which eluded some of the most brilliant minds, which includes likes of Galileo and Newton. Rushed mathematical proofs were generated, some of the mathematicians earlier had claimed that no such movement was possible. That being said, Foucault was seen as an outsider by the elite French Academy due to his lack of training and degree. Yet he was good in designign things and making connections to science. This was presented to the public in 1851, and the very next year in 1852 he created another proof for rotation of the Earth. This was done by him inventing the gyroscope.. Gyroscope now plays immense role in navigation and other technologies. Yet he was denied membership to the Academy, only due to interest of the Emperor Napolean III in his work in 1864. The pendulum is his most famous work, but other works are also of fundamental significance.

  • He was first person to do photomicrography using Daguerreotype
  • Accurate measurment of speed of light using rotating mirrors –
  • Devised carbon arc electric lamp for lighting of micrcoscope
  • One of the first to Daguerreotype the Sun
  • Designed the tracking systems used in telescopes
  • also designed many motors, regulators to control electrical devices

There are a couple of places in the book where Aczel seems to be confused, at one point he states parallax as a proof for rotation of Earth around its axis, whearas it is more of a proof of Earths motion around the Sun. At another place he states that steel was invented in 1800s which perhaps he means to say that it was introduced in the west at the time. Apart from this the parallels between the rise of Napoleon III, a Nephew of Napolean, to form the second Empire in France and Foucault’s own struggle for recognition of his work and worth is brought out nicely.

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Conditioning hatred for books


The Director opened a door. They were in a large bare room, very bright and sunny; for the whole of the southern wall was a single win-dow. Half a dozen nurses, trousered and jacketed in the regulation white viscose-linen uniform, their hair aseptically hidden under white caps, were engaged in setting out bowls of roses in a long row across the floor. Big bowls, packed tight with blossom. Thousands of petals, ripe-blown and silkily smooth, like the cheeks of innumerable little cherubs, but of cherubs, in that bright light, not exclusively pink and Aryan, but also luminously Chinese, also Mexican, also apoplectic with too much blowing of celestial trumpets, also pale as death, pale with the posthumous whiteness of marble.

The nurses stiffened to attention as the D.H.C. came in.

“Set out the books,” he said curtly.

In silence the nurses obeyed his command. Between the rose bowls the books were duly set out-a row of nursery quartos opened invitingly each at some gaily coloured image of beast or fish or bird.

“Now bring in the children.”

They hurried out of the room and returned in a minute or two, each
pushing a kind of tall dumb-waiter laden, on all its four wire-netted
shelves, with eight-month-old babies, all exactly alike (a Bokanovsky
Group, it was evident) and all (since their caste was Delta) dressed in

“Put them down on the floor.” The infants were unloaded.

“Now turn them so that they can see the flowers and books.”

Turned, the babies at once fell silent, then began to crawl towards those clusters of sleek colours, those shapes so gay and brilliant on the white pages. As they approached, the sun came out of a momentary eclipse behind a cloud. The roses flamed up as though with a sudden passion from within; a new and profound significance seemed to suffuse the shining pages of the books. From the ranks of the crawling babies came little squeals of excitement, gurgles and twitterings of pleasure.

The Director rubbed his hands. “Excellent!” he said. “It might almost have been done on purpose.”

The swiftest crawlers were already at their goal. Small hands reached out uncertainly, touched, grasped, unpetaling the transfigured roses, crumpling the illuminated pages of the books. The Director waited until all were happily busy. Then, “Watch carefully,” he said. And, lifting his hand, he gave the signal.

The Head Nurse, who was standing by a switchboard at the other end of the room, pressed down a little lever.

There was a violent explosion. Shriller and ever shriller, a siren shrieked. Alarm bells maddeningly sounded.

The children started, screamed; their faces were distorted with terror.

“And now,” the Director shouted (for the noise was deafening), “now we proceed to rub in the lesson with a mild electric shock.”

He waved his hand again, and the Head Nurse pressed a second lever. The screaming of the babies suddenly changed its tone. There was something desperate, almost insane, about the sharp spasmodic yelps to which they now gave utterance. Their little bodies twitched and stiffened; their limbs moved jerkily as if to the tug of unseen wires.

“We can electrify that whole strip of floor,” bawled the Director in explanation. “But that’s enough,” he signalled to the nurse.

The explosions ceased, the bells stopped ringing, the shriek of the siren died down from tone to tone into silence. The stiffly twitching bodies relaxed, and what had become the sob and yelp of infant maniacs broadened out once more into a normal howl of ordinary terror.

“Offer them the flowers and the books again.”

The nurses obeyed; but at the approach of the roses, at the mere sight of those gaily-coloured images of pussy and cock-a-doodle-doo and baa-baa black sheep, the infants shrank away in horror, the volume of their howling suddenly increased.

“Observe,” said the Director triumphantly, “observe.”

Books and loud noises, flowers and electric shocks-already in the infant mind these couples were compromisingly linked; and after two hundred repetitions of the same or a similar lesson would be wedded indissolubly. What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder.

“They’ll grow up with what the psychologists used to call an ‘instinctive’ hatred of books and flowers. Reflexes unalterably conditioned. They’ll be safe from books and botany all their lives.” The Director turned to his nurses. “Take them away again.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Though fictionalised the above passages capture what makes people hate books in general. The conditioning happens in reality in a more subtle manner. The conditioning laboratory is the school. In school children are made to engage with the books, textbooks in most cases, in the most artificial and dishonest matter. Another problem is the quality of textbooks themselves. Though the school has a “textbook culture”, not enough effort is put in by the writers and designers of the textbooks to make the best that they can offer. Instead cheap, copy-paste techniques, and a mix-and-match fashioned content is crammed and printed onto those pages glued together called as textbooks. No wonder, people when they grow up don’t like books or run away at the sight of them. Its just behaviorism at work with Pavlov portrait in the background.

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Schooled and unschooled education

It is difficult now to challenge the school as a system because we are
so used to it. Our industrial categories tend to define results as
products of specialized institutions and instruments, Armies produce
defence for countries. Churches procure salvation in an
afterlife. Binet defined intelligence as that which his tests
test. Why not, then, conceive of education as the product of schools?
Once this tag has been accepted, unschooled education gives the
impression of something spurious, illegitimate and certainly

– Ivan Illich (Celebration of Awareness)

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Einstein on his school experience

One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year … is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry – especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.

Seeing that even almost a hundred years later it is almost unchanged gives one an idea of how little effort has gone into changing how we learn.

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Positive and Negative thin spaces in LaTeX

At times in LaTeX you want to introduce a small space between words. This is especially important in mathematical typesetting. Just adding a little bit of space hairspace, can alter the aesthetic look of the equation or mathematical entity substantially. For example consider this expression:


This produces the following

Screenshot 2020-04-04 at 15.47.51

The | braces are too close to the character “a”. To create a better version of this we introduce a small hairspace between the two. The code for hairspace is \,.


This produces a much nicer looking expression.
Screenshot 2020-04-04 at 15.47.55

This feature of hairspace was known to me for some time. But the problem came when I had to create a negative space. Take for example this expression:

 $F_{eff} = kx$

The result of this is not so nice looking as you can see:

Screenshot 2020-04-04 at 16.06.38

But then I came to know about a negative hairspace. The code for it is \!. Now let us introduce this in the above expression

$F_{e\!f\!\!f} = kx$

The result is much better visually:

Screenshot 2020-04-04 at 16.10.33

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Sidenotes and label in LaTeX

Recently I have been using the sidenotes package in LaTeX. It provides many options which I find aesthetically pleasing. For example, instead of footnotes, it gives sidenotes. This particular typesetting has been used beautifully by Tufte in his books. But even before Tufte’s books this option has been used, for example, see the beautifully designed book The Evolution of Culture in Animals by John. T. Bonner.


Not the recent reprint, some idiots at Princeton University Press have completely killed the aesthetically pleasing landscaped typesetting to portrait one (and a not very good one)! In general Bonner’s book are a visual treat in terms of designing and of course the content as well. His meticulous detail to the images, and use of log-scales to depict biological scale in time and space it something that I have not seen very often.

The Evolution of Culture in Animals uses a landscape mode with sidenotes and figures in margins extensively. This is the exact functionality that the sidenotes package provides. Even the tufte-book and tufte-handout classes use this package in a modified manner.

When using sidenotes package, I found that the marginfigure and margintable environments worked without a problem when using a label and referring them to in the document. But when it came to the sidecaption option for wider figures and tables, somehow I could not get the referencing to work. The hyperref showed the correct page and even the captions had the correct numbers for tables and figures. But the label and \ref{} to it didn’t work.

For example, if a figure was created as such:

\sidecaption[][1cm]{This is an eagle.}

The first [] controls the text that appears in the List of Figures, while the second [] controls the vertical placement of the caption.

Now when I referred to this figure in the document using Figure~\ref{eagle1}, it gave an error and typeset it as Figure ??, instead of Figure 1.1 or something similar. The same problem was there for a sidecaption used for tables as well. A common mistake which usually causes this error is placing the label before the caption. So the golden rule seems to be:

Always place your \label{} after the \caption{}.

But it was not the case in my example. A bit of digging in the log file showed this error:

Package caption Warning: \label without proper reference on input line xxx.
See the caption package documentation for explanation.

LaTeX Warning: Reference `eagle1′ on page 7 undefined on input line 415.

Now back to caption package documentation, it had this explanation for this error (page 44):

\label without proper \caption

Regarding \label the floating environments behave differently than its non-floating counter-parts: The internal reference will not be generated at the beginning of the environment, but at \caption instead. So you have to place the \label command either just after or inside the caption text (mandatory argument of \caption).

So that was it. You have to place the \label{} inside the \caption{} environment and the issue was solved. Placing it just after the caption did not work for me.

\sidecaption[][1cm]{This is an eagle.\label{eagle1}}

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