This past summer marked the 40th anniversary of my graduation from graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill. My research group there was small: two of us were graduate students, and the third member of the group was a post-doc. The other graduate student, Ed, was a very interesting fellow. He had attended several graduate schools, and had settled on UNC as the place from which he would, reluctantly, finally, graduate.
Ed once upon a time was enrolled as a grad student at Stanford. At the time, Stanford had a whole stable of Nobel laureates in our discipline. Ed’s favorite memory of Stanford was standing in front of a urinal in the men’s room, relieving himself between two Nobel Prize-winning physicists.
Linus Pauling, the Nobel laureate in both chemistry and peace, was at Stanford when Ed was there. Pauling, you may recall, was an advocate for the idea that vitamin C could cure the common cold, among other things. According to Ed, Pauling kept a big apothecary jar filled with vitamin C on his desk. Students were encouraged to grab a hand-full of vitamin tablets, and to keep a log of their dosage and how they felt.
I haven’t kept up with research in that area, but the last I heard, there was absolutely no good scientific evidence that vitamin C does anything at all to reduce the length of a cold, or to alleviate the symptoms. I have heard of at least one study indicating that zinc gluconate works to some degree to lessen the severity of the common cold, but vitamin C appears to have a reputation that it does not deserve. Still, if you check my medicine chest, you will find packets of Emergen-C powder, each containing one gram of flavored vitamin C, ready to be mixed with water. Let’s just call that my superstition: I find it difficult to bet against Linus Pauling.
Although I no longer work as a researcher, it appears that I have stumbled across a research finding of extreme significance. I was able to restore my pre-calculus class to perfect health, and all in one day. It was so simple, yet so efficient, that I have to share the results with you. And it did not involve vitamin C.
I noticed that a fair number of seniors in the class were always absent due to illness on test day. The affliction affecting the seniors did not appear to be contagious, as the juniors in the class were unaffected. I suppose the seniors have suppressed immune systems due to the stress of applying to colleges. At any rate, it was very, very inconvenient. It was also unfair, as the seniors who skipped test day, but later took the test, scored better, on average, than the students who took the test on test day. That makes sense: they had more time to study for the test.
I gave a test last Wednesday on exponential and logarithmic functions. Several days prior to the test, I told the class the number and types of problems that would be on the test: three problems of this type, four problems of that type, etc. At the end of the review I asked the question: What type of problem is not on the test?
They replied, unanimously, “word problems!” It must be a universal truth that students who can solve a simple equation for x cannot solve the problem if it is posited in the form of a word problem. All my students hate word problems, and they really do not like the idea that I expect them to be able to solve word problems.
Back to my cure for the mysterious affliction that I will simply call “senioritis.” I informed the class that any student missing the test on Wednesday had best show up with a doctor’s note, preferably with photos of the compound fracture or surgical incisions that caused the absence. If they showed up with this documentation, they would be allowed to take the same test their classmates took.
If they did not show up with this documentation, they would take a different test, one of equal length to the original, but one composed entirely of word problems.
It was miraculous. My sickly senior class suddenly became quite healthy. On test day, I had 100% attendance. I thought that one student would end up taking the make-up test, as he did not make it to his main lesson block, nor did he show up for first period. But there he was, huffing and puffing as he sprinted to the door, coming into the classroom just under the wire, to take his second period math test.
I do not know how to transfer this miracle cure to other situations, such as poor attendance in the workplace, but in this one instance it worked like a charm.
I often hear students complaining about math. They ask the age old question “When will I ever use this in real life?” I now have one answer to the question.