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Inside the current issue:

Beautiful and Useful:
Emphasizing Mathematics in Science Centers

Gearing Up for Math:
Professional Development Builds Capacity


Finding the Math:
A Math Momentum Sampler


Meet Math:
A Tool for Cooperation Between Palestine and Israel

Handling Calculus:
Graphing Motion to Understand Math

Let's Replace Math Phobia with Math Appreciation

Baskets and Pineapples:
Indigenous Math Discovery in Brazil

When to Make Math Explicit:
Letting the Visitors Decide

Joining the Cyberchase:
A Cross-Platform Math Opportunity

Tips from the Math Forum

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Browse Back IssuesASTC Dimensions: January/February 2006
  November/December 2005 Dimensions

January/February 2006
Building Math Capacity

Let's Replace Math Phobia with
Math Appreciation

By Jaine Kopp

As an advocate over the past 30 years for a mathematically literate society, I am disappointed that I still hear mathematics maligned by so many otherwise intelligent people. In my work with elementary school teachers, for example, too many report that they were "never any good at math" or that "math never made any sense." Not only do they talk that way about their own math educations; they use their lack of understanding as an excuse to teach out of the textbook, with little thought about the lessons they present. Many find it easier to fall back on rules and procedures ("When dividing a fraction by another fraction, invert and multiply") than to teach for conceptual understanding.

My experience is echoed in an early 1990s study by Julian Weissglass,* in which math teachers were asked to speculate about the beliefs and values underlying their teaching. From a long list, these commonly expressed beliefs help paint the picture:

    • It is all right not to be good in math.

    • Math is difficult, and students need to be told what to do.

    • People learn by listening and doing homework.

    • Mathematics is developed linearly.

    • Practice makes perfect.

These views and opinions are not limited to educators; they are echoed in society at large. The comic strip Calvin and Hobbes was famous for its amusing jabs at mathematics. Each time Calvin "freaked out" after realizing that math is a part of real life, the humor reflected a universal experience.

When I am introduced as a math educator, I get a variety of responses. Some people stare in disbelief at a woman for whom math was apparently stimulating rather than intimidating. Others "confess" that they barely made it through math or that it was the most difficult subject they ever took. I hear about high school teachers who wrote tirelessly on the board without explanation, or about the never-forgotten embarrassment of "freezing" when called on in math class. For those who suffer from math phobia, these hours spent struggling and feeling unsuccessful have left a false impression of what mathematics is. They have never felt the excitement math can engender when presented in creative, thought-provoking ways.

I like to believe that one day the reputation mathematics has acquired will change, that math literacy will become as valued as reading and writing literacy. I further hope that math will be appreciated for its beauty as well as its utility. After all, one need not understand the intricate mixing of oil paints or the scientific reasons for flower coloration to appreciate the beauty of a painting or a rose. So, too, with math.

The question then becomes, How can the image of mathematics be transformed? Where can educators, families, and society go to explore, build their confidence, and learn to appreciate mathematics?

One answer is science centers. You can do math without science, but you cannot do science without math or its tools. That is why, at the University of California-Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS), we have endeavored to make mathematics an integral part of the museum and its programs.

As soon as visitors walk into LHS, giant-sized games from around the world invite them to play. Young and old together use patterns, logic, and reasoning to develop strategies and solve problems. Nearby, an entire exhibition, Math Rules, is designed to engage visitors interactively with pattern, geometry, and discrete mathematics. Activities like What's the Scoop?, which draws the parallel between permutations and the structure of DNA, and Shape Up!, which connects shape patterns to diatoms, move away from the traditional view of mathematics as computation to link math directly with science.

LHS also offers workshops that allow children and parents to do math together through activities like measuring a T. rex footprint and comparing it to their own. In summer, the Wednesday Fun Days include days focused on mathematics. The Family Math project has created resources for families to use at home with kids from preschool to middle school; its workshops for school and community leaders also promote family involvement with math.

In 1999, LHS and UC's Berkeley Botanical Gardens collaborated on a project that uses the garden as the context for presenting and reviewing math concepts and skills. Designed for children aged 5 to 12, Math in the Garden accommodates a range of adult leaders, from the math whiz to the scout leader who last took math in high school. The response from participants has been enthusiastic. Said one parent, "[The program]...was fun, easy to follow, and helped to answer that age-old question, 'When will I ever use this?'"

These are some of the steps LHS is taking to put math's best foot forward with the public. It will take a more collective social effort, however, to change entrenched perceptions. A key element of that effort is the mathematics education our children receive.

Because schools have the responsibility of helping students to acquire the math skills and tools they will need to approach and solve problems in real life, it is crucial that we support math educators. Science centers have the opportunity, through our teacher education programs, to create a positive image of mathematics and emphasize its importance. Let's open the doors of our science centers to teachers, as well as to students and families, and invite everyone to be part of a new trend—math for all, and all for math!

Jaine Kopp is director of the Bay Area Mathematics Project at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley. For more on math opportunities at LHS, visit www.lawrencehallofscience.org.


* Weissglass, Julian. "Changing the Culture of Mathematics Instruction." In Journal of Mathematical Behavior, Vol. 11, No. 2 (November 1992).

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