|Ivars Peterson's MathTrek|
November 1, 1999
In one discussion group, I heard a teacher complain about efforts to "make math fun." I must confess that, in an opening address to the entire gathering, I had been one of those guilty of talking about how much fun math can be and how to use this aspect of math to motivate both students and teachers (see Tickling the Mind, September 22, 1997).
The dissenting teacher's point was that math is a serious business and that there is nothing to be gained from hiding or sugarcoating the hard work that's required of a student to learn the subject. He himself had operated a small business earlier in his career. He recalled one occasion when an employee had made an error in calculating a percentage and ruined several thousand dollars worth of paint. He was determined that students in his classes would learn their math facts well enough to avoid such mishaps.
Although that resolve may be commendable in some ways, I think it's an overly narrow view of what mathematics has to offer. Pleasure, intellectual challenge, curiosity, artistry, and much more come into play.
For many mathematicians (and math teachers), intriguing puzzles and a fascination with numbers have served as entrees into the field. Some still remember with affection Martin Gardner's wonderful "Mathematical Games" articles in Scientific American (see Martin Gardner's Lucky Number, September 8, 1997). Others recall their first encounters with the fourth dimension or the endless digits of pi as defining moments in their love affairs with mathematics.
In that spirit, my wife, Nancy Henderson, and I have written a book that introduces children to a variety of ideas also of interest to today's mathematicians: knots, map coloring, Möbius strips and topology, prime numbers, chaos, fractals, and more. Our point is that children of, say, middle-school age can grasp and even experiment with some of the topics that figure prominently in current mathematical research. Not all of the mathematics that they can learn has to date back to the Greeks!
Our setting for Math Trek: Adventures in the MathZone is a wacky mathematical amusement park. You have to identify an unknot to get in. Once you're inside, you can find your way around with a four-colored map, try out a Möbius-strip slide and roller coaster, venture (carefully) into Mersenne's Fun House, crack a computer code, get dizzy riding a Tilt-A-Whirl, play billiards on tables of various shapes, win games with weird dice, and experience pinball from a novel perspective.
We have included a variety of activities, from building your own chaotic pendulum to analyzing the game of Monopoly, many illustrations, touches of history, and answers to the problems. We think it's an enjoyable package, of interest to kids, parents, and teachers.
Learning math should have a "fun" component. Last month, I attended another meeting of math teachers. This time, I heard a lively presentation by a middle-school teacher who celebrates numbers in the classroom. "Each number is unique and exciting!" he maintained. So, each numbered school day focuses attention on a certain "number of the day," and the students end up learning some number theory.
What about 5, star of the fifth day of the school year? It's a prime number, of course. The Pythagoreans associated 5 with marriage because it is the sum of the first female number (2) and the first male number (3). It is also the hypotenuse of the smallest Pythagorean triangle. And there's much more! You can check The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers by David Wells or Numbers: Facts, Figures and Fictionby Richard Phillips for further details.
Meanwhile, Nancy and I are working on a new book, Math Trek II: A Space Odyssey, which whisks readers through a whole universe of lively digits and curious shapes.
Copyright 1999 by Ivars Peterson
Peterson, I., and N. Henderson. 1999. Math Trek: Adventures in the MathZone. New York: Wiley. (See http://home.att.net/~mathtrek/.)
Phillips, R. 1994. Numbers: Facts, Figures and Fiction. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Wells, D. 1997. The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, rev. ed. New York: Penguin.