Teaching tactics that add up for students

Wednesday December 14, 2011

WILLIAMSTOWN -- For high school sophomores, using familiar video games to explain the complex shape of the universe is a cinch. Statistics are a lot easier to grasp when M&M candies are part of the demonstration.

Williams College professors used examples like these to teach mathematical theories to several classes of 10th-graders on Tuesday. About 130 students and their math teachers from Mount Greylock Regional High School and Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School filled classrooms in the Bronfman Science Center at Williams College for a morning-long series of workshops called "Math Blast."

The program is designed to connect students with Williams College professors who, in turn, introduce students to applications and theories in math.

"It's a great venue and a great way to explain to kids about math," said Kaatje White, coordinator of the Williams Center, which has been a collaboration between Mount Greylock Regional and the college.

Piloted last year with Mount Greylock, the program added BART students this year. Participants chose four 30-minute workshops to attend.

There were six options from which to choose: "Fractals and Natural Shapes" with professor Cesar Silva; "The Rubik's Cube: A Mathematical Approach" with professor Mihai Stoiciu; "The Shape of the Universe" with professor Satyan Devadoss; "Soap Bubbles and Mathematics" with professor Frank Morgan; "What's Your Favorite Color?" with professor Richard De Veaux; and "Why Knot?: An Introduction to Knot Theory" with professor Colin Adams.

"At first, I didn't want to go to this, but it's kind of fun," said Mount Greylock sophomore Emily Rudd. "Usually math class is just a lecture, but the presenters are so energized and the topics are different, so I think that helps."

Rudd participated in professor Morgan's soap-bubble math workshop, which explained angles and structure.

"People who know something about math are needed everywhere," Morgan told the students.

In a neighboring classroom, professor Devadoss tried to convince students that the shape of the universe looks something like a three-dimensional doughnut, and can be explained, in part, by the simple idea of multiplying pictures.

He likened its continuous expanse to how Pac-Man can leave one side of the video game screen and be transported to the opposite side of the maze, or how the Super Mario Bros. characters can jump down a warp-zone pipe to travel to another level in their world. The students smiled and nodded their heads in understanding.

"In the classroom, we're teaching [students] the number-crunching kind of math that they're tested on," said BART math teacher Eric Trumble. "These kinds of lectures open students up to other concepts in the sciences and math."


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