Scientist at Work Blog – Teaching Fractals in Ghana

I have been regularly checking the New York Time’s Scientist at Work blog since writing about it mid-May in the hope that a mathematician or operation researcher would be profiled. I didn’t have to wait long: less than two months after the blog was created, Ron Eglash, a professor of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is being featured for studying and teaching fractals in Ghana. His first post not only provides an introduction to his work, but also details creative ways to teach African children about math, specifically using music to teach about the least common multiple in this post.

Dr. Eglash’s blog post is exciting for a few of reasons:

  1. It is great to see math being used in the “real world”, especially a concept like the least common multiple. When students complain “We’ll never use this in real life!”, it is easy to find examples for percentages (tips, sales tax) and even fractions (cooking). It is harder to find a reason why knowing the least common multiple is useful.
  2. Hands-on learning is an effective teaching technique for all subjects, but it can be difficult to find ways to use it for teaching math. So it’s nice to see math lessons that don’t involve text books.
  3. Math is being made accessible to a wider audience, including schoolchildren in Ghana who have now been exposed to areas of mathematics they may not have otherwise seen in school or their everyday lives.  Hopefully this encourages some of them to pursue further education and even careers in mathematics.

So often it feels like there are just two types of people: 1) those that understand math and 2) those that don’t and never will. As a math tutor in college I often heard “I am bad at math. I will never get better at math no matter how hard I try.” Well maybe those people haven’t been taught math the “right way” (see #2). Or maybe they don’t feel it is worth their time (see #1). Or maybe they were never given a fair chance to be good at math (see #3). Maybe incorporating more “Scientist at Work” ideas into the classroom could help some of those people migrate from the second group to the first group.

What creative ways of teaching math have you experienced? What are other ways that we can make math more accessible to everyone?

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