Difficult equation: Teaching students to love math

Photo illustration by Keifer Nace/Generation Next

Can you imagine a lecture on math creating laughter and building excitement among students? Steven Strogatz, professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University, succeeded at both in August when he presented “The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity,” based on his book of the same name, in Santa Fe. Strogatz said math was beautiful. He cited four main strategies to make math appealing to the general public: humor, empathy for the person struggling to understand math concepts, the “aha” moment when you figure out the answer and relevance in terms of how math connects to your everyday life. He had kids in the audience figure out some problems — and they loved it.

If only that’s how math was received all the time. Many believe the school system enforces math in a way that leads people to dismiss it as a rigid and inapplicable subject.

Taking math as a requirement can be frustrating. Santa Fe High School teacher Brian Smith said most “high school math should be an elective.” Shalimar Krebs, a math instructor and tutoring center coordinator at Santa Fe Community College, said that “taking math — and not because I had to,” was the beginning of his love for the subject.

Sam Lewis, a senior at the Academy for Technology and the Classics, is taking AP Calculus BC and AP Statistics — even the titles are turnoffs. “I think the public school system really tries to force science and math on every student, even if it’s not a field that they’re interested in,” Lewis said. “I’m not a huge fan of doing visual arts. If the public schools tried to force that on me, I’d probably do terribly in it.”

Jackson Miller, a Santa Fe High School junior taking AP Calculus BC, believes students are not taught how to “see the beauty or the art of math. Instead, they are given formulas and concepts to memorize. I think that that is a problem.”

High school math teacher and blogger Dan Meyer agrees: “Many people see math as a series of magic tricks that they have to memorize and use over and over again. The tricks don’t make sense, which makes memorizing them even harder, and by the time they’re asked to use them over and over again, it all feels frustrating and pointless.”

But there is hope. Using techniques such as mathematical e-cards and concerts, Canadian math professor George Gadanidis is battling the aversion toward math. “Most adults have a fear [of] or dislike math,” Gadanidis said. “If you talk to young children, the ones I work with in grades one, two and three, they don’t have any of that. They enjoy math, they’re interested in math, and they find it cool. But somewhere, somehow, between grades one, two and three and when they become adults, they learn to dislike and fear math. We’re not born that way, so somehow we’re made to see math that way. What we need to do … is try to engage kids with math that’s really interesting to think about.”

To generate excitement about math at Santa Fe High, Smith started a program called Zombie Math that requires students to use mathematical equations and problems to survive an attack by the living dead. One misplaced decimal point and you’re dead meat.

And the truth is, students are often afraid to make mistakes. “Math has a right answer and there’s a lot of wrong answers,” Krebs said. “People are afraid of getting things wrong … so they’re afraid to just dive in and try.

“We can always go back. It’s not the end of the world if you get a problem wrong.”

In his class, Krebs creates problems and gets them intentionally wrong. “I try to demonstrate a lack of fear — diving in and trying and then showing that it’s OK, right or wrong.”

Some say students don’t always understand how math skills can pay off down the line. Mathematicians can make more than $100,000 a year, and in 2012, approximately 3,500 people were employed in mathematics-related positions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are many other jobs related to math. “In this day and age, money is huge, and companies have to worry about their cost for their products so that they can break even and make profit,” said Rachel Sidebottom, a junior at Santa Fe Prep who is taking pre-calculus. “There are mathematical formulas for everything in the financial world. The medical world also uses math all of the time.”

Meyer said, “As computers integrate and improve different fields, we’ll need more people who know how to work with them and who understand their logic. A math major makes people generally useful to those fields.”

Math can be enjoyable. Lewis likes it “because math is an abstraction of the concrete world. That means that we’re able to take everything there is and turn it into a thought, and through that represent, interpret and analyze it.”

Sidebottom has always enjoyed math: “I love being able to be given a problem and not only complete it but understand the meaning behind the operations done to come up with an answer.”

For teens who are struggling in mathematics, the key to success may be a mix of hard work, looking at math as a puzzle instead of an obstacle, and having dedicated and creative math teachers.

“Hard work and a curious mind is all that math asks of people,” Meyer said. “Mistakes shouldn’t be avoided but explored instead.”

Isabelle Clinton is a junior at Santa Fe High School. Contact her at IClinton5@gmail.com. Raina Wellman is a senior at the Academy for Technology and the Classics. Contact her at rainawellman@gmail.com.

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