‘Math Guy,’ a visiting professor, teaches course aimed at non-mathematicians

Ricardo Barros

Keith Devlin is a mathematician, an entrepreneur, and NPR’s “Math Guy” on Weekend Edition. But this fall, he’s on campus as a visiting professor, teaching “Introduction to Mathematical Thinking,” a course he created in 2012 as the first math MOOC to be offered on the Coursera platform. 

In the class, non-math majors apply mathematical principles to everyday situations in a “flipped lecture” format, watching lectures online before class to free up class time for discussion and collaboration. Devlin spoke to PAW about the course, his role as adviser to a television series, and the cost/benefit analysis of airport security. 

How do most people view math?

Mostly they don’t know what it is. People have this view of mathematics based on their last experience ... and in most cases, not only is it frozen, but it was frozen at a point that they didn’t really understand. So they’ve got this confused notion of something that isn’t representative of mathematics either in its content or its quality.

What’s your goal in teaching the class? 

The assumption is that this is the last math course they’ll ever take, and I want it to be better than the one they took previously. So No. 1 is that they go home with a positive attitude about mathematics and its efficacy because most of them, if not all of them, will never need to do mathematics themselves. But the chances are high that they’ll have to work closely with someone who does. ... You need a level playing field where both people understand enough about the other person’s domain that they can have a good collaboration. 

How is teaching non-math majors different than teaching math majors? 

If you’re teaching a course to mathematicians, it’s very prescribed. You know they’ve got a certain kind of background, it’s focused entirely on the mathematical facts and procedures and on getting them right. ... A course in the mathematics department is like a class on auto mechanics: It’s about how to build and maintain your automobile. I’m teaching people how to drive and enjoy their automobile. 

Do you see the “flipped lecture” style of teaching becoming the norm? 

Yes. To just lecture on the basic unchanging material that’s in the textbook is pointless. What you should do are little lectures tailored to [the students’] backgrounds. Doing that is valuable. It’s a much better use of time if the professor can sort out the problems and clarify the misconceptions. 

Do you think that some people’s lack of knowledge about math prevents them from understanding larger national issues?

Oh yeah. The amount we spend on airport security is insane for such a minute risk. We’re essentially basing policy on a small example that’s not representative of what’s really going on. If the government is serious about saving lives, you ban tobacco, put significant limits on alcohol and driving, you do a bunch of other things. You don’t throw away billions of dollars in the airport for a risk that for almost everyone in the population picked at random is zero. A little bit of mathematics can override a lot of instinctive human reactions.

You served as an adviser for the CBS crime show NUMB3Rs, in which a mathematician helps the FBI. What did you do? 

I wanted to make sure the math was right. For example, I had a long discussion with [the co-creators] about what area of mathematics the character Charlie [a mathematician] could be doing. I helped to create the character by thinking about what he could be doing — they said, “Well, he’d be interested in flowers and plants.” And I said, “No, he wouldn’t.” So we ended up coming up with an area of mathematics that matched his character. 

They wanted to get the math right, and they were very receptive to having me on board. I thought it was important because if you’re going to tell the story, let’s tell the right story. 

Interview conducted and condensed by A.W.