How many pieces of popcorn would it take to fill the room that you’re in? What if a mad veterinarian could transmogrify cats into dogs and back again? Starting with three cats and one dog but only one machine, could the vet turn one cat into a certain number of dogs? And just what exactly are the fractions that explain the actions of a boomerang?
These are some of the questions the SouthEast Ohio Math Teacher’s Circle tackles when they meet for summer immersion, which finished its fourth year earlier this month.
Teachers from area elementary and middle schools collaborate with university faculty through SEOMTC to engage in fun, meaningful mathematics problem-solving. It’s been described as a spa for math teachers, where they go to enjoy mathematics for themselves.
The SEOMTC is a way for math teachers and those with a love of puzzles, problem solving and play to come together and rediscover the joy of doing mathematics, alongside their peers.
“Really, the focus is on ‘me’ as a problem-solver,” explained SEOMTC co-founder Bob Klein, an associate professor of mathematics at Ohio University. “We’re not doing these problems as something we want everyone to do in the classroom tomorrow. We’re doing this to develop this community of problem-solving.”
SEOMTC co-director Nick Pilewski, a lecturer at OU’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology, said that many teachers do take some of the activities back to the classroom even if that’s not the ultimate goal.
Remember that popcorn question? It’s one that SEOMTC partner and East Elementary fourth-grade teacher Scott Hall-Jones put to his students.
Klein said that the problems the teachers like to work on during the immersion are a combination of fun and frustrating that they call “fun-strating.” These are problems tough enough not to be boring but not so hard as to make anyone tear their hair out. It’s low-floor, high-ceiling, he said.
“It has to be a rich task. It has to be engaging somehow, either how it’s presented or the math behind it is really cool,” Pilewski explained. “Ideally, both.”
If somebody were riffle-shuffling a 52-card deck of cards, for instance, how many perfect shuffles would it take to get back to the original order?
“We want those ‘how many’ questions to really lead to ‘why’ questions and ‘what if’ questions,” Pilewski said.
Klein added that the problems aren’t really about the answers but more about the questions that arise.
SEOMTC is the first of two such circles in Ohio for teachers, but the concept has been growing rapidly in recent years and new circles are on the way in Columbus, Bowling Green, Crooked River and Akron.
“If there’s ever a group of ‘get-’er-done’ teachers, they’ve got to come from southeast Ohio, right? And that energy that we had I think really helped push other areas to generate circles,” Klein said.
During the summer immersion, teachers gather for four days of presenters that explore a wide variety of problems. Participants come from the Athens City School District, Columbus, Meigs County, and other school districts in Athens County including Alexander local and Federal Hocking.
The circle also meets regularly on Saturday mornings throughout the school year. In addition to Klein, Pilewski and Hall-Jones, SEOMTC leadership includes Ryan Davis from Southern Local School District in Meigs County, and Courtney Koestler, director of the Ohio Center for Equity in Mathematics and Science at Ohio University.
Koestler noted how participants in the circle walk away not only with mathematics knowledge but also social knowledge. For instance, the circle has tackled problems dealing with the gender pay gap and minimum wage.
“It’s an example of how we can use mathematics to understand our world,” she said. “I think it was very eye-opening for a lot of people.”
She noted how people came to that task with certain preconceived notions and walked away with more of a shared understanding because of the mathematical knowledge they gained.
“People can use mathematics to solve some real problems,” she said.
Klein cited Athens Mayor Steve Patterson’s proposal for a pedestrian plaza on West Union Street uptown. One problem-solving activity would be exploring the different options mathematically.
“This is a real-world problem that’s in the newspaper right now and the kind of thing that’s ripe for mathematical investigation,” he said. “It elevates the discussion of each of these topics away from a sort of emotional response that is part of what stymies politics.”
Exploring the question with mathematics and logic and reason, he said, can lead to the ability to question and argue and help generate a productive citizenry.
“If I was looking at what makes math teacher circles different from other types of professional development, I’d have to say that it is rooted in high-quality, big ideas about mathematics,” Klein said. “It starts there. Those are its roots.”
And it’s not just for teachers. The Math League of Southeast Ohio provides these same fun, engaging math problem for kids ages 11-15 on Saturdays at the Athens Community Center. It is southeast Ohio’s first and only student math circle.