Numbers game: the struggle to make maths fun

Last updated 14:34 12/04/2012
MATHS FUN: Catherine Berent, 9, rides a square-wheeled tricycle in the Math Midway exhibit in Dayton, Ohio.

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Pity poor maths.

In the American drive to boost science and maths education, it's science that has all the kid-friendly sizzle: Robots and roller coasters, foaming chemical reactions, marshmallow air cannons.

Maths has... well, numbers.

"America has a cultural problem with math. It's the subject, more than any other, that we as a country love to hate," said Glen Whitney, a passionate mathematician who worked for years developing algorithms for hedge funds. "We don't see it as dynamic. It's rote and boring and done by dead Greek guys a thousand years ago."

A brave group of educators and entrepreneurs think they can change that. With games and competitions, museums and travelling road shows - and a strategic sprinkling of celebrities - they aim to make maths engaging, exciting and even fun.

The inaugural Lure of the Labyrinth tournament, designed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, challenges kids to navigate an online monster lair by solving maths and logic puzzles. Top scorers in the competition, which kicked off this month, can win tablet computers.

DimensionU, an online game company, this week launched another national tournament, DU the Math, to encourage kids to play its free maths games. Top players can win a personal music lesson from teen pop star Greyson Chance, a day with the hit band Mindless Behavior or a star-studded rock concert in their hometown - all prizes deliberately chosen, company spokesman Tom Schuyler said, "to make math cool".

Perhaps the most ambitious effort to give maths some sparkle comes from Whitney, the hedge fund mathematician. He has raised US$22 million ($27 million) to build a Museum of Mathematics, due to open this fall in New York City.

And yes, he has heard all the jokes.

"Would you rather go to the Museum of Math or the Museum of Broccoli?" Whitney asked. "That's the stereotype we're trying to combat."

To that end, he is sending a travelling exhibit around the country; it is now at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in Dayton, Ohio. It includes such marvels as the square-wheeled tricycle, which can be pedalled along a specially designed, geometrically compatible track.

Whitney says he wants visitors to come away with a sense of awe at the power and beauty of mathematics. "Math makes the impossible, possible," he said.


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The new efforts are born of the realisation that American students are falling behind in maths, even though math skills are more important than ever in careers ranging from manufacturing to healthcare to finance.

American elementary and middle school students score above the international average - though far below maths powerhouses such as Singapore and Japan - on standardised maths tests given worldwide. By age 15, however, US students plunge in ranking, scoring below countries such as Slovenia, Hungary and Iceland. (In contrast, they remain at or above the international average in science and reading.)

The US made a push to bolster maths education during the frenzy of the space race in the late 1950s and 1960s. But even in that post-Sputnik era, maths was seen as an elite subject, not necessary for the masses. As late as the mid-1980s, most states required just a year or two of maths in high school, according to a scholarly review of maths education trends by Alan Schoenfeld, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Even today, many high schools don't offer advanced maths. In New York City, for instance, just 10 per cent of the high schools with the highest black and Latino enrolments offer Algebra II, according to a report by the US Department of Education.

Educators acknowledge part of the problem is the traditional approach to teaching maths. Despite periodic stabs at reform, teachers say maths classes are often far too heavy on computation drills and formulas, leaving little time for creative problem solving.

"It's as if you took a little kid who really liked music and wanted piano lessons and said, 'We're going to have you practice scales and chords for the next 15 years, and then and only then will we teach you music,'" said Kathy Morris, an education professor at Sonoma State University in California. "It's a soul crusher."


Morris recently received a US$300,000 federal grant to develop better training for maths teachers. She says she wants them to get their students thinking of math as the ice cream, not the broccoli, of the school day.

Similar initiatives are underway in other states and nearly every one has adopted new "common core" curricular standards that emphasize reasoning and puzzle-solving, not just computation.

To prepare for that shift, major corporations and philanthropies - including Google, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York - have pledged US$24m to recruit and train 100,000 new maths and science teachers in the next decade.

On a smaller scale, a new geometry book due out this summer, Girls Get Curves, aims to teach girls math in breezy, teen-magazine-style prose, "so it's not scary and their brains don't freeze up," said author Danica McKellar, an actress known for her starring role on TV's The Wonder Years. McKellar, a summa cum laude math major at UCLA, already has three top-selling math books to her name, including Kiss My Math and Hot X (about algebra).

Whether all this will succeed in making maths fun has yet to be seen.

When the pop band Mindless Behavior touted the DU the Math tournament on its Facebook page, a few fans gamely said they'd give it a go. But many more gave up at once, posting comments such as "i HATE math" or "me and MATHS ARE ENEMIES!!!"

Yet the new techniques have won a few converts. Dina Cohn, a 13-year-old student in Newton, Massachusetts, said she was lukewarm about maths until she joined a local club, Girls' Angle, that explores maths concepts in depth, then embeds challenging puzzles into treasure hunts. "I enjoy it more now," she said. "If they did that in school, it would make it more interesting."

While he applauds the tournaments and treasure hunts and most especially the maths museum, veteran maths teacher J Michael Shaughnessy says it will take more than good PR to boost maths' appeal. It will take a cultural revolution.

Every time he hears a parent tell a child, "I've done fine without math," or "You don't really need to know that," he quietly but urgently interrupts.

"That gives kids permission not to try hard at a subject that's really challenging for everyone," said Shaughnessy, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "It's doing national damage."

- Reuters

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