This blog entry marks two milestones:
Scheduling this visit was a challenge. Each semester I limit the number of classes that I miss for professional travel and I have numerous (and increasing) adminstrative responsibilities as the Undergraduate Director for the Department of Mathematics at The University of South Carolina (particularly during the summer months). These constraints, combined with the various travel schedules of Maplesoft's staff necessitated the deferral of this trip until November 2009. (The additional one month delay in preparing this is due to end-of-semester administrative responsibilities.) I wrote the original draft of this from various airports on my way to the 14th Asian Conference on Technology and Mathematics in Beijing, China and, now that Christmas is history, have some time to finish it.
On the morning of November 11, 2009 (Veteran's Day in the US, Remembrance Day in Canada, and Armistice Day in France) Tom Lee greeted me and provided an overview of the plans for my two-day visit, including an opportunity for me to meet with any specific group that was not already on the schedule. While I consider myself fairly familiar with most aspects of traditional Maple, I was surprised by the size of the MapleSim group and its importance in Maplesoft's short-term plans. Now that I know a little more about "physical modeling" I hope that I can carve out some time for me to develop MapleSim implementations of some of the physical problems I have looked at over the years.
The first formal session, "Brainstorming: MaplePrimes and Web Communities," met in the Infinity Suite. In this meeting I was able to put faces (real faces, not the ones many of us use on MaplePrimes) to some of the people behind MaplePrimes: Will Spaetzel, Bryon Thur, Kathleen McNichol, and Jim Dell. The Maplesoft personnel shared with me some interesting statistics about MaplePrimes usage and growth over the 4+ years it has existed. For example, I was shown slides indicating that the 12,000+ members of MaplePrimes has posted over 6,500 topics and over 28,500 comments to those topics. We also looked at numbers showing how the site has grown, the things that users do on the site, how long each MaplePrimes session lasts, and where users come from. This was impressive and enlightening. I now have a much better appreciation for the broad reach and impact MaplePrimes has had for the Maple user community.
The second part of this meeting focused on future plans for the MaplePrimes community. We all know that a new version of MaplePrimes is being planned. I must say that the historical data presented to me does help me to better understand some of the changes that have been leaked to the community. An example is the announcement made last month about "Badges and Reputation". Several experienced MaplePrimes members have voice skepticism about this change. I understand their points, but feel the proposed changes can add to the MaplePrimes community - particularly for newer Maple users. The current "point" system is very simplistic. Almost anyone could quickly accumulate points and earn a "red leaf". But what does this tell us? Does this person just ask lots of questions? Post very short or content-free answers? Complain about Maple? Submit requests for future releases? Are their posts related to Maple, MapleSim, MapleTA, MapleNet, ...? The next generation of MaplePrimes, if implemented in a way consistent with what was described to me, should make it much easier for new users to make their mark within MaplePrimes and for each of us to better recognize developing experts in different areas. Of course, if none of this interests you, you are free to ignore it. (Or, maybe, each of us can customize the type of information that is displayed about other users.)
The new structure should provide more people with more ways to have a discernible influence and for all of us to recognize fellow members whose contributions have been the most useful or helpful to them. (Even I admit that the post that's most helpful to me might not be at all understandable or appropriate for another member of the MaplePrimes community.) I am not threatened by the thought that I might lose my "red leaf" status. And, if I do not participate for a year (say), maybe it is appropriate for my status to decay a little. When I was in Waterloo last month the MaplePrimes team was still working on the exact details for the implementation of the new MaplePrimes. While I cannot predict exactly what the new system will look like, I am confident that Maplesoft is reading our input and giving it appropriate consideration. Whatever decisions they do make, I'm sure it will draw upon best current practices - and will be tweaked as the MaplePrimes community continues to grow and prosper. This discussion continued over lunch.
After lunch the meetings moved to Zeno's Room and the topic changed to the new plans for the Teacher Resource Center (TRC). I was given a sneak peak at the new PreCalculus I content, including lecture notes, standalone "widgets" extracted from the lecture notes, and a supply of questions that can be used for assessing student understanding for this material. The lecture notes are delivered as a Maple worksheet (.mw) and the questions are made available as a MapleTA question bank (.qa). The "widgets" are what I find most exciting. These are delivered as compressed Maple worksheets (.mwz) and are intended for use only with the recently released Maple Player. I believe it is Maplesoft's intent to develop the TRC into a general resource for all instructors. Similar content for students will be available on the Student Help Center (SHC). [I do wonder if there could be a way for these two sites to be merged, and for the question banks to be available only to certified instructors - maybe they could be delivered in a compressed form that is readable only within MapleTA.]
The day ended back in the Infinity Suite with my presentation of "Reflections on 25 Years as a Maple Champion". In a similar talk given at the 2004 Summer Maple Workshop I emphasized the evolution of Maple, particularly its user interface and my attempts to develop web-accessible materials (first, in 1997, using forms and CGI scripts, transitioning to maplets and MapleNet in Maple 8 in 2002, and now making plans to move to embedded components and the Maple Player). As the audience included Maplesoft personnel from all backgrounds, I decided not to repeat a lot of this story, instead I chose to focus on the personal relationships and friendships that have been fundamental to my development as a mathematician, a pioneer in the use of technology in mathematics education, and an overall champion of Maple.
My first exposure to a computer algebra system (Macsyma) occurred in 1984 as a first-year graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. My use of Maple took off when the Maple worksheet was first introduced in Maple V in 1990 while I was a Research Assistant Professor at Purdue University and has continued during my almost two decades at The University of South Carolina.
My Maple usage has been in support of a wide range of mathematical topics and applications, including:
- - Hankel function expansions in curvilinear coordinates for wave propagaion in exterior domains
- - implementations of finite element and domain decomposition methods
- - number theory
I have also developed a number of Maple-based educational materials for:
- - differential equations (Saff, ODE PowerTool)
- - linear algebra (Lay, Johnson/Reiss/Arnold)
- - calculus (Thomas, ..., Calculus I in Maple for Blackboard, Maplets for Calculus)
Paul DeMarco asked a question that I have not yet been able to answer:
What significant enhancement or new feature of Maple would you like to see in Maple 15?
I have a number of ideas, but nothing that would really be eye catching. I had thought about true handwriting recognition - but that would impact only a narrow group of users. Eliminating some of the problems that arise with the different parsers for different input modes is important, but not appropriate for this purpose. I believe this basic question has been asked on MaplePrimes. Maybe now is a good time to revisit this question. How would you answer Paul's question?
The next day I was joined by Phil Yasskin, from Texas A&M University, who is a co-author on the Maplets for Calculus project. Our first stop began with a visit to the Symbolic Computation Group at the University of Waterloo. Our discussions ranged over quite a few topics, including our desires for new features that (we believe) would be beneficial in educational settings. A good example of the type of feature we discussed is handwriting recognition. I know Maple has a basic symbol recognition capability, but I'm talking about a full-fledged system that might truly eliminate the need to type in mathematical equations and Maple commands. (The upshot of this discussion is that we should not hold our breath waiting for this functionality to appear. And this might not be all that bad since the current system does help students to better understand the structure of the mathematical expressions and of the Maple syntax.)
After lunch Phil and I sat in the studio while Tom Lee delivered the webinar "The Potential of MapleSim to Energize the Curriculum to Meet Emerging Needs of 21st Century Engineering." Having participated in several Maple webinars from one of my offices, it was interesting (but somewhat disappointing) to see how simple it is to run a webinar. I don't see any reason why it should not be possible to have select MaplePrimes users give short presentations about frequent/popular topics within MaplePrimes.
My whirlwind visit to Maplesoft as the first MaplePrimes Mentor of the Year concluded with a meeting with Jim Cooper, President of Maplesoft. We talked about the old Maplesoft offices (in the former brewery), my previous trips to Waterloo for Maple Summer Conferences (and the one that was cancelled due to SARS), the recent purchase of Maplesoft by Cybernet, and how this will benefit Maplesoft and all the users of the Maple family of products. We will definitely see an emphasis on physical modeling and MapleSim, but all of this is possible only because of the solid (and still improving) mathematical foundation provided within Maple. In spite of all the progress that has been made to date, there are many more areas where improvements are needed to realize the full potential of these products for commercial, research, and educational purposes.
Phil and I stayed in Waterloo an additional day to work on our NSF-funded Maplets for Calculus project. I flew home early Saturday morning to rejoin my family for a weekend of soccer games, cheerleading competitions, and college football. While my family will always be the most important people in my life, I also value my Maplesoft family - in Waterloo and around the world (even those I have not yet met in person).
I have been honored to be the first MaplePrimes Mentor of the Year and thankful for this opportunity to visit Maplesoft. I look forward to seeing how some of the ideas we talked about make their way into general use (in either Maple, MaplePrimes, or other avenues).
Now that I have filed this report and earned my 1000th point I can return to my regular posting activities. What a relief!