Book captures student impressions of calculus

Alex Murkve
Alex Murkve

The inaugural edition of the book “Calculus Contemplations” hit the streets just before Princeton High School’s graduation day and bears the deep thoughts of 41 seniors on a variety of life topics and how calculus relates to them.
Princeton High School mathematics teacher Alex Murkve teaches Advanced Placement calculus, among other classes, and tasked his students to produce calculus soliloquies throughout the year. He told them upon assigning the work: The pieces should reflect the individual’s thoughts related to calculus or math, and he didn’t care how or to what they made the connection. He also told the students that it had to be “a good piece of writing” and needed to meet a high standard.
Murkve made the assignment at the beginning of the year and set three due dates spaced far apart so as to gather the students’ “unpressured view of things.”
Asked where he got the idea for compiling a calculus book, Murkve said, “I guess the idea for it came from watching (vocal music teacher) Mark Potvin and (instrumental music teacher) Jim Baxter.”
As a student of music himself who plays bagpipes, he said he was struck by how effectively and seamlessly music and voice students work together toward one goal with a focus on quality. He said at the end of the work, they have a finished product that can be enjoyed by them as well as an audience. The book idea gelled in April of last year when an inspirational speaker addressed the school district staff and talked about self-published books.
The book contains about 60 submissions selected by an anonymous team of students who were tasked with choosing for the book at least one piece from each writer. The three writing assignments each counted for a grade. Murkve said with most of the submissions, he would turn them back with suggestions and if the students did a good job on the revisions, they got full credit for the writing.
Murkve said he fielded a lot of questions before the first assignment was due, but students told him the calculus-focused writing became easier and would comment about topics they had chosen for the next one.
He compiled all the submissions in March and the writers could choose whether to be identified or anonymous in the book. Murkve edited and formatted the text for the self-publishing book company Lulu.
He said, “The editing process was actually a lot harder than I thought it would be.”
The private and limited distribution of the book included 45 copies, enough for each student to have one as well as Murkve, the high school and the school district. “Calculus Contemplations” is not be available in the typical public, mainstream outlets, but anyone can visit the high school library to read a copy.
The individual writings and compiled book of excerpts was intended to show students the connections calculus helps make in the world, which Murkve said are not all related to mathematics or engineering. Some relations to calculus involve English, history, social studies, art, finance, technology and other parts of life.
He said he thinks most of the students found the writing exercises valuable and he thinks the calculus soliloquies will become a regular part of the AP calculus curriculum. The teacher said it was great of the students to buy into the concept and do the thinking and writing.
“This book is not due to me,” Murkve said. “It’s due to the students.”