Creative Endeavors in Mathematics

MATH 390/ INDS 430A (Spring 2006)
Instructor: Manil Suri


Basic Information

  • Manil Suri, Math/Psych 419, (410) 455-2311,,
    office hours: MW 4-5. (I will generally be available from MW 2-4 as well – you don’t need an appointment.)
  • Lectures: MW 5:30-6:45, ACIV 007
  • Initial reading material: “Fermat’s Enigma” by Simon Singh
  • Prerequisites: Math 152. (Math 221 recommended). (Permission Required)

Satisfaction of Mathematics Elective

Although listed at the 300 level, this course does not qualify for the Mathematics elective requirements towards the BA or BS degree. It can, however, be used as a supplementary elective.


The purpose of this course is to foster creative interdisciplinary interactions in mathematics. Each student will work in a field of his or her interest (for example art, music, literature, but not limited to these) on a project involving a significant amount of mathematics. These projects will be chosen in conjunction with the instructor and the goal will be to create something accessible to non-mathematicians. In addition, all students will participate in the development of a creative exhibition on calculus aimed at non-mathematicians, planned for the UMBC library gallery. The focus will be on non-traditional ideas (e.g. a video game that illustrates tangents and slopes) that will present the topic in original, accessible and engaging ways. Class time will be used for the presentation and workshopping of projects in the progress and the discussion of assigned reading.


Given the technologically dependent society we live in, the gap between those who are comfortable with mathematics and those who are not is alarmingly wide. Both the Calculus exhibition and the individual projects are to be aimed towards those on the non-mathematical side of this gap. A significant objective of the course is to help develop your skills in presenting technical information in an interesting, accessible and nonthreatening way.

The Calculus Exhibition

Before we can embark on planning the exhibition, it will be necessary to identify the target audiences and understand their needs and capabilities. Reading the popular book “Fermat’s Enigma” will help ease us into the right frame of mind towards obtaining such an understanding, as will be some exercises to be performed by class participants. Some questions to be answered in this initial phase will be:

  • What are the primary target audiences for this exhibition in terms of age range and other attributes (such as mathematical education)?
  • What do we know about the knowledge, interests, attitudes, and needs of our target audiences?The second phase will be to decide on the Calculus material to include in the exhibition. This will be divided into modules – such as (1) Historical (2) Infinite sums (Zeno’s paradox) (3) Tangents and derivatives (4) Areas and integrals, etc. For each module, the goal will be to present the material in an accessible and innovative way. A review of other attempts at popularizing Calculus will be helpful. Since the eventual goal will be to actually build these modules, insights and opinions will also be solicited from collaborators in other disciplines (e.g from Design and the Imaging Research Center). Some of the questions to be answered in this phase will be:
  • What mathematics will each module contain?
  • What are the intended impacts of each module on the target audiences?
  • What factors in design and presentation could enhance the material being presented in the module?The third phase will be to plan how these modules will be strung together in an interesting setting. For instance, the whole exhibition may have a narrative theme such as one involving space travel or some popular movie. There will be increasing interactive input from design/visual arts collaborators, and issues of practical feasibility will be discussed. The questions to be answered in this phase will be:
  • What will the exhibition look like from the visitor’s perspective? (highlighting key design elements and experiences).
  • Increased emphasis on practical completion of these modules.The final phase will be to actually build these modules. Depending on time, interest and ability of class participants, this phase will be initiated for some modules this semester and deferred for other modules. The goal will be to begin construction on at least one module. This phase will involve significant interdisciplinary collaboration with people from the departments mentioned above.The output from this course will be essential to write proposals for funding such an exhibition, which is tentatively planned for the UMBC library gallery for Spring, 2008.
    Individual Projects

    The second component of the course will be an individual project to be completed by each participant (joint projects by up to two students may also be considered). Ideally, this project will straddle mathematics and another discipline, and will be aimed at a similar target audience as the Calculus exhibition above. The idea for the project should come from you, though of course you will be consulting with not only me but also getting feedback from the rest of the class as well. A number of the questions above, relating to target audiences, intended impact, design, presentation, etc, will have to be answered for this individual project as well. This will be done formally by each student, in terms of a project proposal.The final product can take one of several forms: a website, a powerpoint presentation, an article/story, a creative work. However, the following criteria will have to be satisfied:

  • The project has to be substantial enough. To give an idea of the appropriate level of work I expect, I will be presenting one such project that was completed for another class.
  • There should be a final oral or visual presentation to the class.
  • There should be a written component to the project.
    Initial Schedule
  • Weeks 1 and 2: “De-mathematization” Relaxing the tightly wound mathematician in ourselves and understanding what might motivate and be of interest to the non-mathematician. Reading assignments: “Fermat’s Enigma,” and excerpts from “Calculus made easy.” Writing assignments: (1)Testing audiences (2)Newsflash
  • Week 3: Discussion of individual project ideas and preliminary discussions on Calculus exhibition.
  • Week 4: Proposals for individual projects due by deadline of Feb 22.

    Grades will be based on written assignments, class attendance and participation in discussions, contributions to the Calculus exhibition modules and your individual project. The division between the work you do for the Calculus exhibition and that done for the project may not turn out to be equal. I anticipate that some students might concentrate more on one rather than the other – if so, your grade will be weighted accordingly.

    Academic Conduct

    By enrolling in this course, each student assumes the responsibilities of an active participant in UMBC’s scholarly community in which everyone’s academic work and behavior are held to the highest standards of honesty. Cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, and helping others to commit these acts are all forms of academic dishonesty, and they are wrong. Academic misconduct could result in disciplinary action that may include, but is not limited to, suspension or dismissal. To read the full Student Academic Conduct Policy, consult the UMBC Student Handbook, the Faculty Handbook, or the UMBC Policies section of the UMBC Directory.