By Irina Rusanova
In the current fall 2019 semester, Br. Norman Hipps, O.S.B., former president of Saint Vincent College, has returned to his passion of teaching mathematics for the first time since 2010.
“Now I can go back and focus on mathematics and being with math colleagues,” Hipps said.
This semester, Hipps said he is offering a mathematics class that, for the first time, allows freshmen whose majors are not rooted in a specific math discipline to fulfill their core math credits in a refreshing way.
“I have been wondering about teaching a math course where there is not some set of content that would serve as a prerequisite for another math course, one [in which] we would be free to choose what we want to study,” Hipps said.
He also wanted to present students with an experience different than what they may have received in high school.
“I asked at the beginning of the year for the students to identify one thing that they liked in mathematics or in their [high school] math class and one thing that they disliked. The majority said they didn’t like anything,” he said.
These negative responses encouraged Hipps to structure his course in a way that would reveal to students an unexpected side of math while also encouraging them to incorporate their existing knowledge of technology, like smart phones, into their study of the subject.
“I was going to do a math class in a way that when [students] finished the class, they would say, ‘That may not have been fun, but it was kind of interesting.’ [This] means that I tried to select topics of math that were, perhaps, surprising.”
Before starting on his teaching, Hipps consulted his students one-on-one.
“[I] tried to explain what I was going to do, and I wanted them to have the option that if they wanted to do some other kind of mathematics, that I would help them switch to another math course. I don’t know if I intimidated them, but they all stayed.”
Soon after the meetings ended, the course officially began with a focus on the Fibonacci sequence.
“It’s a string of numbers, [starting] with a 1 and a 1. And every number after that you get by adding them.”
Hips explained that this sequence, which goes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on, is featured in many areas of nature, such as the number of petals flowers usually have and the family lines bees have.
“The male bee is reproduced from an unfertilized egg, so you might say that a male bee has a mother but no father. The female bee, on the other hand, has hatched from a fertilized egg, so that [the] female bee has both a father and mother,” he said. “So if you start with a male bee, you end up having 1 parent, 2 grandparents, 3 great grandparents, 5 great, great grandparents – and it’s the Fibonacci sequence that counts those.”
The Fibonacci sequence holds numerous other mysteries, and Hipps encourages students to uncover such mysteries through presentations during a dedicated day out of the class’ three weekly meetings.
“They look things up [like]: ‘Who was Fibonacci, when did he live, where did he live, what else was happening at the time of his work?’”
Another assignment revolves around the play-turned-movie, Proof, which is a drama-mystery about a mathematician trying to prove that she was the one who first proved her late father’s genius theorem. Students are required to watch a version of Proof and answer questions involving distinctions between mathematics and certain areas of human interaction.
After completing the lessons on the mathematical notion of proof, Hipps said, the class is to learn rational and irrational numbers.
Future subjects of discussion depend on his investigations into what will engage students more.
“It’s an experiment,” he said. “Now, along the way, I’ve asked whether there are topics the students have some concern about. So, some have said that they’d like to understand interest and loans. […] Some have said that what they liked in high school was some statistics.”
Throughout the course, Hipps said he and his students explore questions such as: ‘What math concepts resonate most with students?’ ‘What curious math concepts can we explore?’ ‘Who were these mathematicians who came up with these concepts?’ and ‘Is math a concept made by humans, or is it a study of nature?’ along with questions the students develop themselves, such as ‘How does compounding interest work?’
“In the course, while the students are looking things up, they’re still kind of looking things up as a spectator rather than as a doer,” Hipps said. “So I haven’t figured out how to get the students to do more mathematics, and I don’t want to introduce a lot of computation, calculation, which could be kind of boring – but by the same token you have to do a certain amount of that to end up doing a decent amount of mathematics.”
As for the future of the course, Hipps said whether the class becomes a constant depends almost entirely on students.
“Here’s what’s going to be really interesting. We’re going to list it for the next semester, and it’s going to meet Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the same time. All the students in the class this year were placed there this past summer, so we’ll see whether anybody signs up for it next semester.”
When asked about his past experience serving as president, Hipps answered that his presidency allowed him to create and maintain communication with people whom he would not have otherwise met due to his business at the college over the years. He has been occupied on campus well before he finished his Math PHD in 1976, having first studied at the old prep school at SVC.
“An important component of the presidency is interaction with external folks, and that includes alumni. […] The presidency was an occasion for me to extend the influence of connections that I had with people from Saint Vincent, whether they were alums or […] friends and donors of alums.”
After nine years of communicating with benefactors of the college to now engaging students in lively mathematic conversations, Hipps has swiftly transitioned back into his daily routine preceding his presidential years.