Mount talk discusses hands-on alternative to traditional math education

October 22, 2019

Lee Fothergill, Mount Saint Mary College mathematics professor.

Mount Saint Mary College Mathematics professors Mike Daven and Lee Fothergill discussed their passion for making math education an engaging, hands-on experience at a Mount talk held on Thursday, October 17.

The event was part of the college’s Investigating Research on Campus (iROC) program, which aims to provide a forum for Mount faculty, staff, and students to showcase their research endeavors with both Mount Saint Mary College and the local community.

The talk was centered on the two professors’ research in math trails, a teaching method intended to get students out of the classroom and to help them apply theory to practical scenarios.

“Many people think of math as sitting in a classroom with a textbook and solving equations – but I think it’s much better to be engaged and doing things,” said Daven.

The presentation detailed examples of math trails that spanned across a wide range of grade levels and topics.

One example involved a hall at the Ellis Island Museum. The hall featured a circular glass window filled with square panes. The problem required students to apply basic geometry to estimate the area of the window.

A more local example involved the sensory gardens that Daven recently helped plant at Bishop Dunn Memorial School in Newburgh. During this math trail, students recorded the different colored flowers in one of the gardens and calculated the probability of pulling each colored flower at random.

Daven and Fothergill not only believe that math trails can help engage students, but also that these activities more accurately portray careers in mathematics than the traditional classroom approach. According to Fothergill, the memorization and practice problems often found in math classrooms are sometimes “not what mathematics is about, and is not what mathematicians do.”

Fothergill added that mathematicians “question, and think, and communicate in ways understandable to people who don’t really understand mathematics” – much like the experiential nature of math trails.