Math majors are no exception, but when a team of professors from Pitt Johnstown sought to tailor a public speaking course to the practical needs of math students, they found plenty of resources on technical writing, but next to nothing on technical speaking.
Further investigation revealed that most math graduates, far from pondering theorems and proofs in isolation, regularly are required to make presentations as part of their job.
So, UPJ associate professors of mathematics Stephen Curran, Michael Ferencak and John Thompson and communication instructor Susan Wieczorek developed their own specialized speaking course. The project is a 2004 Innovation in Education Award winner.
Introduced last spring, Technical Speaking in Mathematics soon will be required for all UPJ math majors.
The course helps meet general education requirements implemented about five years ago at UPJ. To ensure that its graduates are armed with verbal skills, UPJ requires students to incorporate some sort of public speaking into their coursework. UPJ students must take three “speaking-enhanced courses” or take a primary speaking course plus one enhanced course.
“We had been thinking about how we’d been addressing the new general education courses,” said Ferencak. They didn’t want to whittle away at the time spent teaching math concepts to make room for speech in upper-level math classes, he said.
“Modifying a public speaking course seemed to be the way.”
While one might not initially think that math majors must have good speaking skills, the need is a practical one.
Curran cited a National Science Foundation survey supporting their recognition that math majors need to be taught speaking skills. It showed 58 percent of mathematics graduates go into business or government sectors — areas in which they’ll be likely to make presentations rather than cloister themselves away with formulas and calculators.
The professors’ own survey of 195 UPJ math graduates closely aligned with the NSF statistics.
“A majority are going to have to communicate technical ideas to a non-technical or semi-technical audience,” said Curran.
Of the UPJ math grads working in high-level math occupations, 70 percent reported they were required to make presentations on a daily basis. Twenty-three percent said they had to make presentations monthly and only 7 percent reported they never had to make presentations to groups.
When asked how well prepared they were for the task, 60 percent said they either were “somewhat” prepared or not prepared at all.
What’s more, Curran said, many of those who felt prepared reported they got their speaking skills through outside activities such as student government.
“It was an ad hoc type way that speaking preparations were being addressed,” Curran said.
With an eye toward meeting students’ future on-the-job needs, the four UPJ professors designed a course modeled after a typical public speaking class, with the added twist that math permeates the content of the presentations.
Although the three-credit course is designated as a primary speech class, the math professors also scrutinize the technical content of the speeches for accuracy. Introduction to Theoretical Mathematics is a prerequisite.
“We wanted something the students could take with them to grad school and on the job,” Wieczorek said.
Six students initially took the course last spring. The professors found some of the results surprising.
The course includes five types of talks that might be found in any speech class, sequenced from least technical to most technical.
The initial autobiographical speech takes on the topic of why the student is a math major and what he or she hopes to do with a math degree.
A five-to-six-minute commemorative speech focuses on a mathematician.
“One of the students gave a eulogy to Pythagoras,” Ferencak said.
The next — an applied problem-solving speech — to the surprise of the professors turned out to be the hardest. Students role-played as outside consultants or in-house group members with the job of explaining their solution to a practical problem and convincing the audience to buy into it.
The persuasive speech was difficult because of the audience, Wieczorek said. The professors role-played a mixed technical audience, much like what one might find in a real-world business situation.
The increasingly technical speeches that followed proved simpler.
Students paired up to give a theme speech in which they presented the proof of a calculus theorem. Another group speech, the final and most technical, grouped students into teams of three who chose a technical topic to discuss, much like what they might present as part of a project team in a real-world situation.
Wieczorek said she was impressed with the quality of the speeches.
“They were a notch above my general public speaking classes,” she said. “We found the students felt this was a very challenging course,” she said.
The professors have described the class at several conferences and the concept is taking off, Wieczorek said.
“The question is does technical speaking really require something different?” she said. The four plan to continue to try to prove that to be the case.
Wieczorek is convinced there are different needs and different expectations involved in technical speech, but that mathematicians will benefit from learning standard elements of good public speaking.
The objective nature of scientific material doesn’t necessarily lend itself to persuasion per se, but in the real world, even mathematicians will find they need to communicate with audiences that aren’t completely math minded.
“In the sciences, they think they only have to explain content. In communications, we’re trying to convince the listeners of the validity of an argument,” she said.
“There are some clearly defined parameters we need to engage our listeners,” she said.
The team plans to follow up with students who have taken the class to determine how well it served them in the work world.
“We tried to make the course as practical as we possibly could,” Wieczorek said.
“We’re teaching speaking with math as a topic.”
—Kimberly K. Barlow, via University Times