Within mathematics, Linear Algebra (LA) has held a long-standing importance. Many curriculums used it for decades as the first class in which students encountered proofs (though this has changed in recent years for a significant portion of programs). Many other disciplines like Meteorology, much of engineering, and others require at least some course in basic matrix-based mathematics. This is especially true for Data Science which relies heavily on linear algebra for data manipulation and decomposition algorithms. Most practitioners and instructors would agree on the importance of the topic, but what exactly should students be learning in that course (or courses)?

This is a challenging question, made even more difficult if LA actually is a mathematics program’s introduction to proofs for majors. Generally speaking, the disciplines that use mathematics as a tool don’t particularly value this proof-based approach. Additionally, traditional proof-based mathematics are almost inherently non-computational, in the sense that very few proofs of traditionally taught concepts require the use of a computer, or complex computations not possible by hand. This leads educators to spend significant portions of a course teaching things like row-operations which are then executed by hand. This leads to a (potentially) deep disconnect between many of the concepts and skills learned and the actual application of LA to solve problems.

Recognizing this disconnect, I’ve long wanted to develop a “Computational Linear Algebra” course, that potentially builds on a traditional LA course. A course that takes all the basic linear algebra but moves it into the computational realm, highlighting key applications and algorithms. I haven’t had that chance, but this week I got forwarded a blog post from a colleague that got me revved up again about this idea. Jeremy Howard and Rachel Thomas of fast.ai have just released a new course that exemplifies this idea.

The course takes a non-traditional (for math) approach to learning, focusing on a “try it first” mentality. This sort of idea has a lot of support from within CS as an alternative way to teaching introductory programming. So, while it might seem a bit unusual for a math course, in the crossover world between mathematics and computer science (where the topic lives) it makes a ton of sense. Rachel does a great job of motivating and explaining their approach in this other blog-post from fast.ai.

I have not had the time yet to dive into their materials, but will report back again when I do. Or, feel free to contact me if you try their materials in a course (good or bad!)