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January 9, 2022

Sparking an Early Interest in Math

How can teachers spark an early interest in math?

Moreover, how can educators cultivate a passion for numbers and problem-solving that continues beyond the elementary classroom? Those sound like pie-in-the-sky questions at first, but rest assured, there’s an answer.

We only need to go back to the late 2nd century.

Given the subject’s constitution as a right-or-wrong discipline, more than a few people assume that mathematicians don’t know how to party. Let it be known that Archimedes defies that dour stereotype.

Legend has it that this guy discovered the principle of displacement in the bathtub, and once that lightbulb flashed above his soapy head, he became so overwhelmed with joy that our man ran naked into the streets, shouting “eureka, eureka!”

While we advocate for more modest proclamations, it would be awesome if our students expressed similar levels of enthusiasm for their math learning. Here are a few ideas on how to do exactly that.

Math Storytelling

Honestly, no one knows for sure whether the bathtub story happened. (It’s not like someone livestreamed Archimedes’ streaking on Facebook.) We tell this story because, well, it’s a story. And narratives resonate. Stories help young people understand our world through the lens of experience.

When it comes to sparking a lasting passion for math, a little storytelling goes a long way. Whether it’s a blue-collar kid destined for NASA or a female chess master who no one believed in at first, there are plenty of math-centric tales that will inspire any math newbie. Here are a few case studies you can use to bolster your students’ interest in math.

Homer Hickam

After the autobiography and film adaptation October Sky brought Homer Hickam’s story to life, audiences gained a better understanding of how math creates a bright future. All his life, Homer had been told to stay put, to stop dreaming, and to accept his destiny as a coal miner. While there’s no shame in that profession, Homer always wanted to launch rockets into space, despite every naysayer redirecting him to the mineshaft elevator.

Your students will discover how Homer’s story of becoming a NASA engineer hinged on learning math. The subject was the most vital component to achieving his dream.

Vera Menchik

Though she is a fictional character, Beth Harmon from The Queen’s Gambit ignited a passion for chess. After the show’s debut, boards flew off the shelves. Google reported skyrocketing searches for game rules and strategies. Math teachers across the globe are thankful for such serendipitous occurrences.

At the same time, there are also nonfictional female chess players. We mention gender because only 14% of players are women. That’s why we tip our hat to the trailblazers of the game. Vera Menchik’s story, which happened over 100 years ago, still shines brightly today. The first female world champion in history, Vera helped demolish social barriers for so many people who’ve been told they are destined for a role they don’t want.

Caine Monroy

OK, we need to talk about Caine’s Arcade. If you haven’t seen this beautiful short film, watch it right here. We’ll wait.

Doesn’t that make you feel a whole bunch better about the world? It’s magical when science, imagination, and ambition converge.

The community response to Caine’s Arcade is one thing, but there’s also a math story in there. Caine is a budding engineer, entrepreneur, inventor, or whatever he decides to be in life. Though he’s still young, and Caine’s story has yet to be written, this origin tale proves how math is a major component of imagination.

Encouraging Girls to Study Math Disciplines

The gender gap occurs for any number of reasons, from societal conditioning to outdated ways of thinking. No matter where and why this occurs, the sobering reality is that teachers can open the STEM door that antiquated traditions have sealed shut.

The Institute of Education Sciences lays out five steps teachers can take to spark girls’ interest in math:

  1. Establish STEM skills as something one can improve in so that girls see failure or slow starts as a step toward successful outcomes. After all, that’s what the scientific method is all about.
  2. Use prescriptive feedback that lays the foundation for enhanced math skills. In other words, don’t only show girls where they went wrong. Instead, point them in the right direction.
  3. Lift up stories of female mathematicians so girls in your class know what’s possible for them and what they’re capable of.
  4. Create a classroom that inspires curiosity, whether that’s through makerspaces, storytelling initiatives, or math gamification.
  5. Implement spatial skills training so that young women better understand the process of problem-solving.

Math as a Means to an End

When we think of real-world applications for math, the conversation generally focuses on the psychology of high school students. But elementary kids also must understand how math is not a mere brain exercise; it’s a pathway to the future.

Here is a very abridged list of careers that require math as a quintessential skill set:

  • Architect
  • Climatologist
  • Engineer
  • Astronaut
  • Animator
  • Geologist
  • Physician
  • Game designer
  • Urban planner

The list stretches on and on. If you place math in a position as something that propels your students’ dreams, you plant the seeds for a lifelong interest in math.

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