“I am trying to build a community here around math,” explained Wood. “So many mathematicians want to contribute something to math education — math is in dire straits. There is a negative attitude about math. We want to provide a resource to the community.”
Wood explained that as our educational system has become undermined and weakened, higher-level problem-solving abilities have weakened with it. “In the United States, we have super huge achievers,” said Wood. “Our technology has advanced but we have to import brain power. It’s not as good as it used to be.”
Every other Saturday from 1-3 p.m. at Kingston Library more than 20 parents and kids assemble on the second floor and spread out at the Math Circle’s different centers, which each host math games, logic puzzles, problem-solving and hands-on projects. The program is oriented to middle school kids and up, though younger kids are welcome. The program is always free.
The math circle was started four years ago with co-worker Lauren Rose and has since expanded to several libraries such as in Tivoli, Rhinebeck and Staatsburg. The program is partially student-run, partially faculty-run by Wood and Rose. “We are trying to put activities, problems and hands-on construction materials to replicate in other circles,” said Wood. “We are looking at Red Hook, New Paltz and Highland.” There are four undergraduate volunteers, as well as Wood, Rose, and the occasional visiting math teacher or three on hand to help people solve the day’s equations, which always have a theme. It is a walk-in program with no RSVP necessary.
Some of the people who attend are parents who struggle in math, and say they are unable to help their children through it. Others want to develop their children’s critical thinking skills. Tonia Champ-Doran just started taking her daughter Bellanora. “She is a 3D visual thinker,” explained Champ-Doran. “So building puts things together for mathematical reasoning. Doing 3D puzzles and more mathematical reasoning and logic is a big part of it. People think of math as only arithmetic. I think kids get discouraged by arithmetic.”
This past Saturday, the group was working on solving problems all with the same answer. At the end of the two hours, the group comes together and the volunteers take turns answering the problems, often with props. “The answer was the same every time,” smirked Wood. “The problem was just disguised differently. There are so many ‘a-ha’ moments when two problems look different but the structure was the same. Making that connection is creative problem-solving.”
Wood encourages all the participants not to get too sucked into problem-solving, and to gather names of fellow math-heads seated at the tables.
Bailey Middle School math teacher Sheila Schaffer was implementing her skills in a logic game against a sociologist and a magazine editor. Schaffer said that she makes regular announcements to students about the circle, and even offers extra credit for their attendance. Though she doesn’t often see students taking her up on her offer, she did see a seventh grader who was going regularly. “I was pretty impressed.” Schaffer said that she has also purchased games that she has tried out in the math circle for use in her own classroom.
The math take-away was a “Ring of Rotating Tetrahedra” for folks to build with oak tag and glue, thanks to the Museum of Mathematics donating the pattern. The museum is scheduled to open in 2012 at a location in Midtown Manhattan.
Amy Loewenhaar-Blauweiss of Kingston admitted that she is a homeschooling parent who is not good at math. “I’m very limited in math,” she said. “We tried a Sylvan-learning center-type-thing and it just bored her out of her mind. It was just drilling and drilling and drilling. I’m a child of the experimental math of the 1970s, and so we are looking for a third way.”
Loewenhaar-Blauweiss’ daughter Elischka is only 6 and a half and new to the program, but was starting to get the hang of it. “We came last time and she was out of her depth. [Wood] said to keep coming and this time she’s a lot more comfortable and not just making pretty shapes.”
The undergraduate volunteer who coordinates all the program’s volunteers is Jackie Stone, a Bard math major in her senior year. “I usually walk around and work with them,” said Stone. “The kids work on their own and I float around and work with them.” Stone is planning to go through to her doctorate, but would like to teach middle school kids somewhere along the way. “I just love it. It’s so interesting to me. I like puzzles. I like problem-solving. I get to always do that. As you get to higher-level math, the problems become more fun.”
In order to facilitate a break-through for someone bogged down by the numbers, Stone said that she introduces a game that the kid enjoys playing, and explain to them how it’s actually math. “Sometimes we build a polyhedron, and I explain to them the math properties.”
“Math is boring and really hard to do,” complained 9-year-old Jonathan Wright of Kingston. “I’m really good at plus and division. I hate times [multiplication] the most.” Jonathan and his twin brother William just transitioned this year from homeschooling into Kingston Catholic School, where they are suffering through the monotony of arithmetic. Jonathan said that he wanted more games to play, and construction games. “They’re mostly into playing — not the puzzles,” said their dad, Andrew Wright — whose profession as an architect regards numbers with finesse. “We are trying to get them into the puzzles. This library is great. Great programming.”