Category Archives: Education

How to Fall in Love with Math


Manil Suri, a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, had a great op-ed in the New York Times this past weekend called How to Fall in Love with Math. Suri argues that even those of us without advanced knowledge of math can appreciate its power and beauty. He writes:

Despite what most people suppose, many profound mathematical ideas don’t require advanced skills to appreciate. One can develop a fairly good understanding of the power and elegance of calculus, say, without actually being able to use it to solve scientific or engineering problems.

Think of it this way: you can appreciate art without acquiring the ability to paint, or enjoy a symphony without being able to read music. Math also deserves to be enjoyed for its own sake, without being constantly subjected to the question, “When will I use this?”

I highly recommend heading over to read the whole piece.

Math: What is it good for?

A new school year has begun, and soon I will have a new group of after-school math club students. At the first session, I always like to just talk to the kids about why math is important, in terms of future careers, as well as, in everyday life. After all, few are going to grow up to be mathematicians, so why do they need all this math anyway?

I start by asking them to think of ways they or the grown-ups in their family use math:

  • Dividing something to share,
  • Dealing with money – shopping, tipping, budgeting
  • Art and craft projects (measuring, buying the right amount of supplies),
  • Home improvement projects,
  • Time management

Next, we think about some of the careers that use math:

  • Scientists and engineers
  • Computer programmers
  • Medical professionals (doctors, nurses, technicians),
  • Designers
  • Contractors and landscapers
  • Bankers, accountants, and other finance professionals
  • Anyone who owns a business – budgets and accounting

This year, I plan to also show them how math is important in lots of fields and shows up often in scientific articles. Here are just a few recent headlines:

In the past, I have finished off the lesson, by showing this video about designing the Mars Curiosity Lander. Lots of math and WAY COOL!

This year, I plan to show this great video about why math is cool and interesting and important for many kinds of careers.

Zombie Math

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead

Zombies have become big in popular culture the past few years. So big in fact, that they have even invaded math! Here are several articles about the zombie math outbreak.

The Best Way to Teach Kids Math and Science? Zombies (Wired): Texas Instruments has a program called “STEM Behind Hollywood” that provides free downloadable classroom activities that run on computers, TI graphing calculators, or on iPads. Here is a video about the zombie lesson, starring Mayim Bialik:

Surviving a Zombie Apocalypse: Just Do the Math (LiveScience): This article profiles the work a mathematics professor at the University of Ottawa, who has developed a mathematical model for zombie transmission (which can be used in real-life epidemiology).

Wolfram Demonstrations even has a demonstration that models the spread of the zombie pathogen during a potential apocalyptic scenario. 

Test Your Number Sense

Number sense is defined as an intuitive understanding of numbers and their magnitude and relationships.  You can test your own number sense and approximate number system (ANS) aptitude using a free online test called Panamath. The program is also available as a downloadable application so that researchers may use it for studies and educators may use it to assess students.

The test is simple. You are briefly shown a group of blue and yellow dots, and you must decide whether there were more blue dots or more yellow dots. Sound easy? Give it a try.


Maker Faire Bay Area 2013

My family and I spent this past weekend exploring all the wonderful sights and activities at Maker Faire Bay Area. Maker Faire is billed as a family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, and a celebration of the Maker movement. We saw flaming sculptures, robots, giant musical tesla coils, people on stilts, Tapigami, the EepyBird Coke & Mentos show, and much more. The kids polished rocks; did lots of art projects, including a claymation video and an octopus made from gloves; helped build a beehive; made soap and silly putty; and climbed into a life-sized bejeweled flying saucer. If there is a Maker Fair event near you, GO!

Here a few math-themed photos I took at the event.


Koch snowflake ornament


Nerdy t-shirt designs by Lovebian


Geometric sculptures


Geometric building pieces at the Story Lamps booth


Math Sculptures booth


Math Sculptures booth


Hanging geometric sculptures


Some math-y patches

photo 1

Geometric puzzles

photo 2

T-shirt seen at Maker Faire

Origami: Art and Math


Origami is the Japanese art of paper folding. But it is more than an art form; it is a teaching tool and a field of mathematical study.

Origami is a great tool for teaching math.  Origami can increase spatial skills and help students understand many geometric concepts, from shapes and geometric forms, to more complicated concepts like intersecting planes, area, volume, symmetry, and mirroring images. Origami can even be used to teach number theory concepts like fractions and powers of 2. Best of all, origami is fun and creative, and kids love it.


There are tons of online resources for learning origami and using math as an educational resources, especially on YouTube. Here are videos for origami folding and origami as a teaching tool.

In addition to being a fun tool for teaching math, origami has become its own field of mathematical study. Paper-folding can be used to solve mathematical problems (check out Vi Hart’s video on the origami proof of the Pythagorean Theorem), and math can be used to create incredibly intricate origami designs. In his TED talk, Robert Lang explains the mathematical “laws” behind origami, shows some amazing creations, and talks about how to go from an idea to an origami design using a program called TreeMaker that he offers free on his website. He also discusses some real-world applications that have grown out of the study of origami.


Women in Math: Recent Research


image source: IGNACIOLEO

There have been several studies in the literature in the past few weeks about women in math.

I recently posted about the BYU study that found that while boys tend to do better in the first round of math competitions, girls do just as well or better than the boys in subsequent rounds. But there are a few other studies worth mentioning.

IU study: Feelings of power can diffuse effects of negative stereotypes: In this study, researchers used several tools to make women feel high, low, or neutral in power, and then gave these groups a math exam with instructions that either did or did not reinforce the stereotype that women are not good at math. They found that those who felt high in power performed better in math than those in both the low power and control group, despite stereotype reinforcing instructions.

Could Playing ‘Boys’ Games Help Girls in Science and Math? In this review of 12 studies, researchers found that in general men do better at spatial tasks than women. However, there was more variation found within each gender than between genders. Spatial ability seemed to be more associated with gender-identification than with biological gender. The authors suggest that, because spatial ability is refined through play and recreational activities, girls could improve spatial abilities through participating in activities that are stereotypically considered masculine.

More Career Options May Explain Why Fewer Women Pursue Jobs in Math and Science: In this study, researchers examined test scores and conducted surveys with 1,490 college-bound US students. The students were surveyed in 12th grade and again at 33 years old. The researchers found that among students with high math abilities, those who also had high verbal abilities, a group that contained more women than men, were less likely to have chosen a career in math and science than those with moderate verbal abilities. The authors suggest that having both high math and verbal abilities means having more career options, and that this may partly explain why fewer women enter these fields. “Because they’re good at both, they can consider a wide range of occupations.”