Teacher promotes love of math

October 10, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Imagine a generation of teenagers who think mathematicians are as hip as athletes or entertainers. Not in your lifetime, you say? Well, a group of Bay Area math teachers is out to change that by showing kids that algebra and calculus can be cool.

Americans are quick to elevate athletes to a celebrity status. But when it comes to mathematicians, well, how many of them have gained that kind of notoriety? There are a few exceptions.

"I was socially more popular than the captain of the football team. Girls wanted to go out with me because I was the captain of the math team, which is how it should be in every school," said Paul Zeitz, founder of San Francisco Math Circle, a weekly after school program meant to engage students with math in a fun way.

Brianna Frank is a freshman at Mission High. She says math helps her make sense of her world.

"You have to learn if the bank is giving you a big enough interest for the money you have in there. You need to learn how many pairs of clothes you should bring for a seven-day trip -- just like every little thing you have to add up, times, division, to the second power, and little things like that," said Brianna.

Angela Torres teaches pre-calculus at Mission. Once a week she works with the Circle program. The goal is to teach students how to problem solve and learn how to be intellectually creative.

"You are presented with a situation, a problem, there's not one way to necessarily come at that, you have a number of options, you need to weigh the options, you need to decide what to do, and make a plan and go with it," Torres said.

At 3:45 p.m., students get a quick dose of protein to fuel their brains. Then it is time to work, or do we dare say have fun?

King Arthur, the legendary British leader was no mathematician. He selected his knights from his round table to perform important tasks. That selection was done by a process of elimination, and that is what these algebra students will now do.

Fifty-three people participated and in the end number 43 was the only one left standing.

Now their minds go to work to try to come up with the algebraic equation to explain why number 43 was the remaining knight.

Lakenya and her team came up with the right answer.

"So we started over at one and the pattern is one-three-five-seven."

Math Circle is offered at no cost to students. That is because two foundations in the Bay Area are so invested in this program they have offered to fund it 100 percent.

While Math Circle is run by Berkeley's Mathematical Science Research Institute, Bechtel and Moody's KMV are the two sponsors. Jing Zhang is with Moody's KMV, one of the largest research and consulting companies in the world. Zhang says when it comes to recruiting, Americans are not at the top of his list.

"India, Russia, China, the former eastern European countries like Chech, Romania, even some of the Latin American countries like Brazil, Argentina," said Zhang.

Japan and South Korea are also on that list.

"Anybody who can learn to think on their feet and investigate things and ponder things in a reasoned contemplative way is going to get a good job," said Zeitz.

Zhang says we have all learned that in today's world, a solid understanding of math is crucial.

"Just think about the subprime crisis. Those predatory lendings were targeted to the population which lacked the basic understanding of financial math," said Zhange.

"I'd like to make kids as nerdy as possibly and be proud of it. That is what makes America great," said Zeitz.

We salute Paul Zeitz and all the members of San Francisco Math Circle for helping to get students excited about math.

If you know someone we should salute, contact us here.


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