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See What I Mean: Using Prezi in Mathematics

Posted by on Tuesday, May 3, 2011 in News.

This is a guest post by Hang Wang, a graduate student in mathematics. The post is part of our spring “See What I Mean” blog series highlighting the effective use of visuals in presentations and lectures.

At a math conference in May 2010, I was impressed by a presentation in which the speaker, Scott Morrison of UC-Berkeley, used a fascinating slide. The slide had everything he wanted to present on one large page. During the presentation, the computer screen moved around and focused on different parts of the page. When terminology was explained in a theorem, the page zoomed in to show the definition. As Morrison described the “big picture” of the theory, the page zoomed far out to show the topic in relation to other math concepts.

The tool Scott Morrison used to create this fancy slide was a mystery to me, until I attended a workshop on visual thinking by Derek Bruff at the CFT’s Graduate Student Teaching Event for Professional Development this January. Derek showed us many ways to use visual thinking in our teaching, but it was the zooming presentation tool Prezi, the tool Morrison used in his presentation, that impressed me most. Unlike PowerPoint, which forces a linear structure, Prezi is useful for displaying multi-dimensional structures of complicated diagrams.  It is also rather easy to learn. Just go to the Prezi website and watch the tutorial. Then you will be ready to prepare your favorite presentation!

The first time I tried to apply my new toy was a lecture in the Undergraduate Seminar in Mathematics titled “Chaos and Fractals.” Before I attended Derek’s workshop, I had already designed slides for the talk using PowerPoint.  But after I got to know Prezi, I felt that using Prezi’s zooming feature would be a vivid way to show the self-similarity property of fractals. For example, I first showed photos of a lightning bolt and romanesco broccoli, then zoomed into the pictures to show the similarities between micro and macro structures of these objects. The zooming made possibly by Prezi demonstrated visually the fractal qualities of the real world.

My second Prezi presentation was a research talk, “Index Theorem of Elliptic Operators with Proper Cocompact Group Actions.” I chose Prezi again because in the beginning of the presentation, I could show the overall structure of the talk, the relationships of the topics involved, and the important points of the talk.

When you view this Prezi, you will find I used scanned images of handwritten documents, which took me much more time than using LATEX beamer, my usual research presentation tool. This is the only place where Prezi disappoints me. People working in math are used to generating nicely typeset slides using LATEX beamer, which handles mathematical notation very well.  However, Prezi does not understand LATEX, the markup language used by beamer. It is possible to use LATEX-formatted equations in Prezi, as Scott Morrison did in his talk, but doing so isn’t straightforward and doesn’t allow for easy editing of equations once they are in Prezi. (See this help page for instructions.)

However, I still think Prezi could be of potential use in many math classes, especially when a lesson does not include a lot of equations and when it does use a lot of logical arguments or pictures.  Suppose we were teaching a bunch of concepts to our students in the middle of some lecture. Diagrams shown using Prezi might help students see relationships among those concepts more easily than writing concepts line by line on the blackboard. Plus, since Prezis are easy to share online, these Prezi diagrams would be helpful tools for students working on homework or reviewing for exams.

See our previous “See What I Mean” post on Prezi for a few resources on using Prezi.

We occasionally feature guest posts here on the blog as part of our efforts to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning among Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. We recognize that everyone’s teaching context is different, but we hope that hearing others’ perspectives on teaching and learning will help our readers reflect on their own teaching. If you would like to contribute a guest post, please let us know.

Image: “viel gesundes grün,” tin.G, Flickr (CC)


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