Math and science puts many students on the far side of an intellectual Grand Canyon from the land of graduation, so what’s a professor to do?
How about juggle? Or break into song?
Faculty members Will Murray of the Mathematics and Statistics Department and Tom Gufrey of Chemistry and Biochemistry use both techniques to build a bridge for their once-mystified classes.
Murray, an assistant professor, has been a juggler longer than he has been a mathematician.
The CSULB connection between juggling and math began in 2003 when he taught number theory, which “is about the properties of whole numbers and how you can add and subtract them and do modular arithmetic. That lends itself very nicely to describing the patterns of juggling,” he said. “I would take a day in class to do a little juggling to show them what it’s all about. Then we’d analyze it using the mathematics, which tied it directly to what we were studying in class.”
For instance, they studied the “Mobius mu” function (named for the Greek letter m) that can predict the number of juggling patterns. “I gave homework problems to list all the juggling patterns of such-and-such a size and students not only did it, they had fun. I even had juggling on exams,” he said.
Contemporary mathematical study of juggling has its roots around 1990 when mathematicians began studying the patterns to throwing and catching balls. When the balls land in certain patterns, it becomes a discrete math problem to count the number of different patterns that are possible and legal within juggling rules. What had been a geeky, academic thing began to catch on in 2001. Suddenly, jugglers who were not mathematicians discovered patterns all over the world. They embraced them and began using them in performance and competitions.
Several writers for “The Simpsons” are interested in math and the show contains many mathematical references. In January, Murray lectured in Hollywood on the mathematics of juggling to several “Simpsons” writers and other TV scribes and professionals, with an article in Wired magazine soon to follow. Murray is faculty advisor to the Beach Balls juggling club and lives close enough to campus that he occasionally commutes on a unicycle.
He began his academic career studying Japanese, eventually receiving his B.S. degree in the language from Georgetown University. “I lived in Tokyo where my interest was first kindled in math,” he recalled. He wound up earning a doctorate in math from UC Berkeley.
To Murray, juggling is a kind of dance. In Virginia, where he first honed his juggling skills on a farm, he watched lines of square dancers. “Like dancing, juggling is more than a matter of paper patterns. It is a matter of getting out there on the floor,” he said. “The first stage is learning the patterns—where are my feet?—and the second stage is internalizing the steps until you don’t think about them. You think how to make it graceful. You make it beautiful.”
Gufrey teaches “Chemistry and Today’s World,” in which he sings in the voices of Bill Clinton and Goofy and does a creditable imitation of Louis Armstrong singing his own version of “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” called “A Class to Learn Chem In.” He also changed the lyrics to Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” to “Bacardi in a Bottle,” which describes a science experiment including a Bacardi bottle that blows across the room.
Then there’s the beaker full of vodka.
Faculty members Will Murray (top) of the Mathematics and Statistics Department and Tom Gufrey of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Gufrey uses long metal tongs to soak a $10 bill in Russian spirits as he explains, “Vodka is around 80 proof or 40 percent alcohol. Roughly, vodka is half ethanol and half water. I would say that ethanol is one of the most devastating drugs of all time when you think about drunken driving deaths and violent crimes. Yet vodka can help teach chemistry.” Withdrawing the dripping bill, he lights the ethanol. Blue flames flicker, but the bill remains intact. As long as there is enough water to absorb the heat, the paper cannot catch fire.
“I want to overturn the stereotype that chemicals are evil and polluting. Of course, there are dangerous and polluting chemicals. But the human body is made of chemicals. DNA, proteins and carbohydrates are good chemicals. I want to bring back the truth of the old Monsanto slogan of better living through chemistry,” he said.
Gufrey, an adjunct faculty member at CSULB since 1977, also is an associate professor of chemistry at Marymount College in Palos Verdes, Calif. As he likes to tell, one day he attended a long, dull chemistry lecture—his own—so in the 1980s he decided to try something different. He started to include poems, songs and experiments that went way beyond the Science Channel. “Humor goes a long way,” he said. “Students learn more and want to come to class if it is interesting.”
The result? On www.ratemyprofessors.com, students rated Gufrey as the “best, strangest, most interesting teacher on campus.”
“Chemistry 100 is chemistry for people who are either afraid of it or hate it or both,” said Gufrey. “Nonetheless, they are forced to take it. In my first lecture, I tell my 200 students that it is my job to uncover their hidden love of chemistry that they don’t know they have. I find it to be most rewarding for me and for many of the students to make chemistry fun and to live up to what the course says it is, chemistry for today’s world.”
As proof of chemistry’s relevance, “Look at the polymers of a Kevlar vest. Look at the graphite rods in golf clubs. Look at the new lighter components of cars. The list goes on and on.”