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April 25, 2018

Mathematics Awareness Month: Show Students the Fun & Sassy Side of Math

Contributed by Grace Xie

Mathematics Awareness Month was initially established by President Ronald Reagan, who started it as just a week back in 1986. “The application of mathematics is indispensable in such diverse fields as medicine, computer sciences, space exploration, the skilled trades, business, defense, and government,” he said. “To help encourage the study and utilization of mathematics, it is appropriate that all Americans be reminded of the importance of this basic branch of science to our daily lives.”

Since then, Mathematics Awareness Week has gradually evolved into April’s Mathematics Awareness Month. Math is widely applied in everyday life, but most students are either intimated or bored by math, as it appears to be a very theoretical and abstract subject. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Here are some ways to make math accessible and engaging, both in April and in the other 11 months of the year.

The fun side of math

“Ten red socks and ten blue socks are all mixed up in a dresser drawer. The 20 socks are exactly alike except for their color. The room is in pitch darkness and you want two matching socks. What is the smallest number of socks you must take out of the drawer in order to be certain that you have a pair that match?”

The puzzle, at first glance, does not look quite look a mathematical problem, but it is. Chances are, even if you haven’t heard the name Martin Gardner, you’ve probably heard of the puzzles he created. Gardner was a popular American mathematics and science writer, and was regarded as the dean of American puzzlers. The most famous book by Martin Gardner, Mathematics, Magic, and Mystery, explains the math behind mystifying stage acts like card tricks and “mind reading.” A fun read, the book proves that math can be sly and a trickster. Exposing students to the livelier side of math through Gardner’s book is a great way to show them that math is much more than just formulas and arithmetic.

In addition to Gardner’s work, there are a ton of online math games that children can play. Topics cover strategy, skill, numbers, logic puzzles and more.

The interdisciplinary nature of math

Math can be highly interdisciplinary when used for real world applications. Here are just a few examples:

  • Math and voting: As early as 1770, mathematician Jean Chaeles de Borda questioned whether the election for new members of the French Academy reflected the true opinion of the voters by criticizing the plurality vote – the voting rule of the time. Since then, serious mathematical research devoted into the mechanism of voting has been carried on for centuries.
  • Math and art: Everyone knows about the pyramids, but not everyone has considered the math behind building the pyramids. In fact, there’s a lot of math involved in the arts and architectural world including but not limited to such phenomena as The Golden Ratio, perspective, mazes and labyrinths, and kaleidoscopes. Take a look at the famous The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein. Whether or not you will be able to see the full picture of the skull depends on perspective and, of course, the math behind it.
  • Math and decision making: How do you make a profit in the stock market? How do you prove the effectiveness of a new drug? How does an aircraft fly safely? How do you manage complex construction projects? These are just a few examples of how decision making is related to math. By applying statistics, optimization, probability, queueing theory, control, game theory, modeling and operations research, hundreds of important decisions are being made in hundreds of different professional fields. Have your students research a career they are interested in, and allow them to discover for themselves just how much math they’ll actually need.

The ways math connecting with our society, community, and lives are nearly infinite. If the above three examples don’t resonate with your students, explore others — math and sports, math and internet security, math and medicine, math and manufacturing…. We could go on.

The teaching of math

Here are a few examples of ways teachers have used real-world scenarios to teach math in an engaging way. Find more information on these ideas and more on Matt Kitchen’s website makemathmore.

  • We built this city: Students design a city layout on graph paper. They are also responsible for giving a “tour” of their city. Through these two activities, students will work on locating and reading coordinate pairs, as well as determining the distance between points. This activity is designed for middle school students to understand the number system.
  • Symmetry beauty: Students use line symmetry to mathematically determine how symmetrical a celebrity’s face is and, consequently, see if math can help us define beauty. This activity is designed for middle school students to understand geometry.
  • Probability of rock paper scissors: Students play rock/paper/scissors, record their results, and then analyze the probability of what should happen and what did happen. This activity is designed for middle school students to understand probability.
  • Linear roller coasters: Students watch videos of roller coasters and attempt to hypothesize how long it would take for two roller coasters to crash into each other if they were overlapping. Students will utilize the concepts of linear equations, system of equations, slope, and Y-intercept to accomplish this. This activity is designed for middle school students to understand expressions and equations.

Lastly, it is important to note that there are many math-driven career options. Actuaries, financial planners, astronomers, stock brokers, engineers, physicists, statisticians, computer scientists – all of these fantastic careers involve math. Even better, many jobs in these fields are paid well. With the rapid advancement of technology, math seems to be involved in a little bit of everything. Therefore, have your students embrace math education instead of shy away from it. Show them the fun side of math.

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