Welcome

Welcome to the course web page for the Fall 2016 manifestation of MAT 411: Introduction to Abstract Algebra at Northern Arizona University.

Instructor Info

  Dana C. Ernst, PhD
  AMB 176
  10:15-11:15 MWF and 9-10 TTh (or by appointment)
  dana.ernst@nau.edu
  928.523.6852
  dcernst.github.io

What is This Course All About?

Abstract algebra is the subject area of mathematics that studies algebraic structures, such as groups, rings, fields, modules, vector spaces, and algebras. This course is an introduction to abstract algebra. We will spend most of our time studying groups. Group theory is the study of symmetry, and is one of the most beautiful areas in all of mathematics. It arises in puzzles, visual arts, music, nature, the physical and life sciences, computer science, cryptography, and of course, throughout mathematics. This course will cover the basic concepts of group theory, and a special effort will be made to emphasize the intuition behind the concepts and motivate the subject matter. In the last few weeks of the semester, we will also introduce rings and fields.

An Inquiry-Based Approach

This is not a lecture-oriented class or one in which mimicking prefabricated examples will lead you to success. You will be expected to work actively to construct your own understanding of the topics at hand, with the readily available help of me and your classmates. Many of the concepts you learn and problems you work will be new to you and ask you to stretch your thinking. You will experience frustration and failure before you experience understanding. This is part of the normal learning process. If you are doing things well, you should be confused at different points in the semester. The material is too rich for a human being to completely understand it immediately. Your viability as a professional in the modern workforce depends on your ability to embrace this learning process and make it work for you.

In order to promote a more active participation in your learning, we will incorporate ideas from an educational philosophy called inquiry-based learning (IBL). Loosely speaking, IBL is a student-centered method of teaching mathematics that engages students in sense-making activities. Students are given tasks requiring them to solve problems, conjecture, experiment, explore, create, and communicate. Rather than showing facts or a clear, smooth path to a solution, the instructor guides and mentors students via well-crafted problems through an adventure in mathematical discovery. Effective IBL courses encourage deep engagement in rich mathematical activities and provide opportunities to collaborate with peers (either through class presentations or group-oriented work).

Perhaps this is sufficiently vague, but I believe that there are two essential elements to IBL. Students should as much as possible be responsible for:

  • Guiding the acquisition of knowledge, and
  • Validating the ideas presented. That is, students should not be looking to the instructor as the sole authority.

If you want to learn more about IBL, read my blog post titled What the Heck is IBL?

Much of the course will be devoted to students presenting their proposed solutions/proofs on the board and a significant portion of your grade will be determined by how much mathematics you produce. I use the word “produce” because I believe that the best way to learn mathematics is by doing mathematics. Someone cannot master a musical instrument or a martial art by simply watching, and in a similar fashion, you cannot master mathematics by simply watching; you must do mathematics!

Furthermore, it is important to understand that solving genuine problems is difficult and takes time. You shouldn’t expect to complete each problem in 10 minutes or less. Sometimes, you might have to stare at the problem for an hour before even understanding how to get started. In fact, solving difficult problems can be a lot like the clip from the Big Bang Theory located here.

In this course, everyone will be required to

  • read and interact with course notes on your own;
  • write up quality solutions/proofs to assigned problems;
  • present solutions/proofs on the board to the rest of the class;
  • participate in discussions centered around a student’s presented solution/proof;
  • call upon your own prodigious mental faculties to respond in flexible, thoughtful, and creative ways to problems that may seem unfamiliar on first glance.

As the semester progresses, it should become clear to you what the expectations are. This will be new to many of you and there may be some growing pains associated with it. For more details, see the syllabus.


Dana C. Ernst

Mathematics & Teaching

  Northern Arizona University
  Flagstaff, AZ
  Website
  928.523.6852
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Current Courses

  MAT 220: Math Reasoning
  MAT 411: Abstract Algebra

About This Site

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  The views expressed on this site are my own and are not necessarily shared by my employer Northern Arizona University.

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