CMC Corner: Making math fun — and rewarding
As a math teacher, I come across a lot of students who say, “I can’t do it,” “I don’t get it,” or “It’s not for me.” I feel their pain, because I remember and recognize there was one day that even I felt some of those things.
Though I went through graduate school and earned my master’s degree in math and have been a math educator for 19 years, I wasn’t born with a math gene, and I definitely had my struggles. While I was sitting at the kitchen table as an eighth-grader doing my math homework, I exclaimed to my mother, “I can’t do this!” She was not used to hearing me say this; I was a stubborn kid, and I usually persevered no matter the task.
The first step for me was to tell myself that I could do it, and that’s what I tell my students. Everyone has the capability of learning the material, whether they think they’re a natural or not, and whether or not their parents had a knack for it. The keys are practice, time and patience.
I could study great hitters when learning to hit a baseball, for instance, but it wouldn’t matter unless I actually got into the batter’s box and took some swings, over and over again. You have to do it, and math is the same way. When I’ve met with students after a not-so-perfect exam performance, they will normally know why they didn’t do well: they’ll say they haven’t committed the necessary time to it.
Time and patience are particularly important in the beginning-level classes. These courses are so important to a student’s future success in math. If you’re building a house, it has to have a good foundation in order for it to be strong and tall. If you want to write poetry, you have to first learn words and build sentences. Calculus is sort of like the poetry of math; in order to get there, you have to build that foundation, concentrating on it though you might not yet be able to envision the house.
Students enjoy learning when there’s an element of fun and competition. Every year, I’ve organized a “Math Awareness Week” at our local Colorado Mountain College campus. “Math Jeopardy” and the “Equation Solving Bee” are modeled on the familiar game show and spelling bee with a math twist. These students are jumping up and down like game show winners; they love the fun and the competition. It’s sometimes what I see in the classroom: They are glowing because they’ve worked through and solved a difficult problem. It’s a rewarding experience, and the tougher the problem, the greater the reward.
It’s common knowledge that a higher level of math proficiency is associated with more and better career opportunities. The journey toward that great career starts with very small pieces, with each formula, each equation, one problem at a time.
Jason Vargas is professor of mathematics at Colorado Mountain College, where April 13-16 is “Math Awareness Week.” See full details at coloradomtn.edu/event/math-awareness-week. Readers are welcome to attend the community events.
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