Math salon: how to create a love of math
I’m in love with the “Doodling in Math Class” videos that are the latest internet sensation.
The author, Vi Hart, illuminates the joys of math with a biting wit and brutal honesty that is really fun to watch. If you check out her awesome website, you’ll find many more doodling videos, along with the dodecahedron pumpkin she carved, platonic solids made from halloween candy and all sorts of other awesome mathematical explorations.
If you dig a bit deeper, you’ll see she’s a recent graduate who’s intellectual engagement in the creative world of math is both inspiring and highly unusual.
This is the student that I want to teach. More importantly, this is the student I want to help create. You can see the joy in learning bubbling in every balloon polyhedra or snake doodle. She is thriving in the world of ideas, and I have no doubt that she has an incredibly bright future ahead of her. Any graduate program in mathematics, design, music, or just about any creative field would probably die to have her studying in their program. You should also notice that she didn’t need to go to an ivy league institution to do this, and she doesn’t need to post her resume, PSAT scores or AP Calculus score to convince you she’s the real deal.
I’m convinced that if we can get kids on Vi’s track of deep engagement and romantic scholarship, we can ditch many of the faux-measures of talent we and achievement we use today. And I’m further convinced that this is the way of the future, especially in college admissions—imagine you’re an admissions committee at some prestegious univeristy. You’ve got two candidates in front of you with the following details:
- Candidate A: 4.2 GPA, 2350 SAT, 800 Math SATII, 5 Calc BC
- Candidate B: vihart.com
Any admissions officer in the country could easily tell you stories of all the perfect AP Calc and SAT score students they’ve admitted with the hopes that they would do great things in mathematics only to find that they never took another math course in college. And any admissions officer who took 30 seconds to poke around Vi’s site would easily recognize that she’s different. Decision made.
So how do we create these students?
Vi’s posts and sculptures got me thinking back to this video:
When I see this video, I imagine tons of 7 year-old Vi Harts, playing with puzzles and battleship, asking questions, exploring math, and never worrying about whether what they are doing is right. And I want to bring this spirit of mathematical wonder to my students and the larger community.
I showed this video to my classes a long time ago, when they were complaining about math was so hard, because in they don’t get retakes and it’s all about the right answer. I also challenged them that I think we could create a math salon like this at our school, for elementary age kids all across Atlanta.
One student, S, decided to take the idea and run with it. S is a brilliant student. She read the first article I gave out about Dweck’s work, and criticized it for not having a control (turns out Dweck did have a control, but it wasn’t mentioned in the piece). She’s gotten perfect scores on every problem, so much so that I write challenge problems on the back, and she does those too. When students wrote up answers to the when do to trains collide if one leaves from LA and the other leaves from Atlanta, she worked out the general solution, googled the speed of trains and the tracks they’d be taking, and came up with the city in New Mexico where they would collide, and wrote it all up in scientific paper that could easily be published in the “Journal of Rail Dynamics.” But, S is also pretty focused on perfection, and though she loves learning so much that she bounces up and down when solving a system of equations, I worry that she isn’t as interested in finding questions of her own, and settles for getting the bonus right and the 105% average, when she could be doing original scientific research and changing the world.
S and I have discussed this, and I would say she’s making huge strides (she’s one of the lead researchers on our mindset project) and more important for the purposes of this post, she’s spearheading our plans to start a Math Salon.
After one exam a month or two ago, I asked every student to email a question they had about the exam and their progress on corrections for homework. Naturally, S, who didn’t miss anything, asked me what she should do, and I said, “just start a conversation with me.” And that conversation lead to me suggesting she might be interested in getting a Math Salon off the ground. From there, S took off, finding friends to help her with the effort, connecting with a local charter school where she tutors, and writing out the following proposal for funding from our service learning program. Yes, these words are 100% the words of a 9th grade student. So if you’re looking for a very junior researcher to join your lab this summer, and maybe help write a few grants, let me know and I’ll put you in contact.
Here’s hoping we create a few more Vi Harts and inspire a bit more doodling in math class.