Making Math Accessible
BRUNSWICK — In one of Hungarian mathematician Eva Szillery’s early junior engineering classes in Maine, the gears weren’t turning. Instead, the small plastic gears were attached to the sides of students’ Lego robots.
“They used (the gears) for decorations,” Szillery said, “to make them look like some things they had seen about robots on the television set.”
For Szillery, founder of the Maine Mathematics Science and Engineering Talent Search (MMSETS) and director of the Maine Chapter of the American Mathematics Competitions, it was a lesson in the need for early engineering education in the state.
“Gears are for changing ratios — if a motor would be stronger or run longer,” Szillery said. “And, of course, if they didn’t learn about ratios — forget it.”
During April school break, Szillery will bring the junior engineering camp curriculum she has taught at the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine at Orono to St. John’s Catholic School in Brunswick.
In March, Szillery led a workshop there for teachers on an instruction method she said can help students learn math concepts that can be applied in engineering.
“What we are trying to tap into is that the kids should learn this early because there is a huge number of jobs in this field,” Szillery said. “It’s not emphasized enough in average schooling.”
Citing the same deficiency in math education to prepare students for careers in engineering, Southern Maine Community College’s Brunswick campus opened a preengineering program scheduled to start this fall for students catching up on math or science courses required for a career in engineering.
For most students, however, Szillery said the decision comes at middle school age.
“Engineering skills are present very early and, because of that, they should be nurtured,” Szillery said.
Szillery, who earned her doctorate in math at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, said that one way to nurture those skills is through different teaching methods used widely in Singapore, for which that method earned the name “Singapore Mathematics.”
“The strength of it is problem solving,” Szillery said.
The method, which incorporates graphical representations of math problems, allows students to focus more closely on the problem at hand rather than the concept they are learning.
Often in American classrooms, Szillery said, students’ problem-solving skills in math are directed by the concept being taught.
“They think ‘What have we been learning?’ regardless of whether (that concept) has anything to do with the reality of the problem,” Szillery said.
By representing math problems graphically, using bar graphs and other visual representations, Szillery said teachers can see if a student’s approach to a problem is correct from the beginning.
“About 50 percent of students make a mistake before even writing the first equation,” Szillery said. “and if you insist that they make bar models, you can see how they are thinking.”
Beyond concepts that effectively teach skills needed for engineering, Szillery said the materials for teaching Singapore math are significantly less expensive than traditional math textbooks.
“The money that is not spent on books is spent on educating the teachers in the subject matter,” Szillery said. “And that’s what makes the big difference — these are extremely inexpensive books.”
The paperback textbooks cost around $10 apiece and avoid thick, glossy paper and the variety of marginalia with mathematician biographies and other information that is common in American math texts.
Szillery said she has seen the method spark in young children a greater interest and confidence in math, which she said is the foundation for pursuing a career in engineering.
In addition to math instruction, Szillery said the course will include building Lego robots, learning an origami technique called “modular origami,” and using puzzles to explore logical problem solving.
The course, which will meet from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 16 to April 20, is appropriate for students in third through eighth grades. Participation costs $250.
For more information, visit the MMSETS website at mmsets.org or see a brochure on the April program at http://goo.gl/Dms20.