Teacher sets out to rekindle publics math romance

Staci Matlock | The New Mexican
Posted: Monday, April 18, 2011 4/16/11

Math and I had a falling out a few years ago. OK, three decades ago.

It happens with relationships. One party changes faster than the other, and the two become incompatible.

We started out great. I loved maths simple beauty, its irrefutable rules.

Then came algebra. And proofs. And really long equations.

Suddenly math was speaking in a language I couldnt understand. We sought counseling with a math teacher, but it was too late. We grew apart and, I sought out math as rarely as possible.

Then I read about some guy who thought it was possible to make math fun and accessible. He started a blog, Wild About Math!, and last fall he began hosting a math group the third Wednesday of each month at the Santa Fe Complex (a place where brainy people work with math to create some incredible, even useful, things).

The guy, Sol Lederman, is one of those really smart types who left a perfectly lucrative computer job in California to move to Santa Fe and help people reconnect with math. I love watching people have aha! experiences when they see a pattern in something or a relationship between ideas, Lederman wrote via email. I had fantastic math teachers in junior high school who gave me interesting problems to explore, very different from the rote problem-solving many of us have learned to do. So, I want to share the passion I have for math.

I had my doubts, but decided to give Ledermans group a shot, thinking maybe math and I could try again. A half-dozen people, ranging from retirees to a sixth-grade brainiac, showed up for the math group that Wednesday evening.

Lederman assured everyone there were no wrong answers and no one would get left behind. He pulled out a stack of papers filled with drawings of triangles, rectangles and dots.

Lederman likes to use puzzles, diagrams and other visuals to help people use both sides of their brains — the left that controls verbal ability and logic, and the right that controls flexibility and creativity.

The left brain is very handy for doing the machinery of math. Being able to plug numbers into equations, manipulate symbols in algebra and calculus, and being able to do arithmetic are all important skills, said Lederman, citizen teacher at De Vargas Middle School. But, those skills exist in the larger context of solving creative math problems, which is a right-brain activity. The right brain sees patterns, makes connections, looks at problems in different ways, and just has more fun with math.

I was certain everyone else in the room knew a lot more about math than I did. Turns out we all had to reconnect with math, except the Carlos Gilbert Elementary sixth-grade kid Rise Miller, who had just placed first at his school science fair. He was eating up this number stuff.

Kim Alderwick attends the math group regularly to bring her son, Rise, who needed extra challenges outside of school. But Alderwick found herself trying to figure out the puzzles and getting engaged in the math exercises.

Other adults at the math event included Wendy Van Dilla, who peered intently at a diagram of geometric shapes. I enjoyed math up until calculus, Van Dilla said.

I find this very sobering, said Francois-Marie Patorni, president of the Santa Fe Watershed Association and retired program manager from the World Bank. She was looking for patterns of Fibonacci numbers, a series of numbers found in everything from plant petals to computer algorithms .

Lederman gently coaxed the group along, puzzle after puzzle. What do you see? he asked. Draw it for me.

To me, math is about play, he said. Math is art. I can look at a formula or solution to a problem and be in absolute awe, as if I were looking at a beautiful painting. I get a thrill from making connections, and from guiding people to make connections.

We played with the Pythagorean Theorem, trying out a few of the 300 ways to prove some things about right triangles. Before I knew it, an hour had flown by. My head hurt, but I was, to my surprise, having fun.

Maybe not as much fun as sipping a margarita on a beach somewhere, but still, not too bad. Math and I were back on speaking terms; that made me pretty happy, like meeting up with an old beau and realizing we could still be friends.

The Math Exploration Group next meets at 7 p.m. April 20 at the Santa Fe Complex to play with Circles, Dots, Lines, and Polygons. For more puzzles and Ledermans math musings, visit http://wildaboutmath.com.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com.