Invenio 2009

Math Nerds to the rescue

Math NerdsTo many students, "math" is a four-letter word that evokes mental anguish. The same goes for the term "nerd." But mathematicians (and nerds) from Lamar University are changing that misconception. They’ve created MathNerds Mentoring Networks—an on-line tutoring program that aims to improve the math achievement levels of students from elementary through high school while it provides hands-on experience for university students who plan to become teachers.

MathNerds Inc. is a non-profit corporation dedicated to supporting inquiry-based learning in mathematics and co-founded by W. Ted Mahavier, associate professor of mathematics at Lamar. In a Texas State University System initiative, MathNerds partnered with Lamar and Texas State University to secure $349,500 in funding to create mathematics mentoring networks throughout the state. The Meadows Foundation granted $247,000, and the Texas Education Agency provided a match of $102,500.

The funding supports faculty release time, programming and networks at Lamar; faculty release time and networks at Texas State University; and assessment consultants at Texas A&M University and James Madison University. The networks link public school students who have math questions to university students taking math or math education courses. The public school students benefit by having an additional resource for math help. The future teachers benefit by interacting with students at the curricular level that they will eventually teach.

Since inception, 24 networks have been implemented with Texas elementary, middle school and high school math classes working with university classes at Lamar, Texas State, Austin Peay State University in Tennessee and James Madison University in Virginia. While the Meadows Foundation specifically funds projects to benefit Texans, Mahavier’s colleagues at Peay State and James Madison wanted to join the networks, so they connected their courses to Texas public school classes.

Mahavier and co-founder, Valerio De Angelis, associate professor of mathematics at Xavier University, created the free math-help website in 1996 while at Nicholls State University because they wanted to help more students through the Internet. "We named it MathNerds because we felt calling someone a math nerd is no longer a derogatory statement. It's a compliment," Mahavier said. "More people realize how important math is to our technology-driven society. Nerds invented that technology, so nerds are cool." MathNerds supports inquiry-based learning in mathematics through hundreds of volunteers who give direction and hints but never the answers to the problems.

Volunteer Jason Montgomery, a mathematics graduate student at Lamar, said he likes the inquiry-based method because students leave the class with a stronger understanding of the subject and it teaches them to think for themselves. "To put it plainly," he said. "I'd rather education turn out people who can produce original thought as opposed to pattern-solvers who learn by playing follow the leader."

And now MathNerds has added the mentoring networks to its list of free resources that help students. Here’s how it works. First, a university math education professor or university math professor identifies one or more university classes that he or she wants to join the network. Once the university classes are on board, one or more public school classes are added. So the team consists of a university math professor or a university math education professor, a public school teacher, the university students and the public school students. Once the people are in place, the network is set up. Any combination of the public school classes may be routed to any combination of the university classes, although they typically strive to maintain a one-on-one relationship linking one public school with one university. All university students and public school students receive a user name and password enabling them to access the MathNerds website. Public school students submit questions through online forms.

These questions are routed to the university students who have agreed to respond to questions in that category and who have not met their weekly quota. Through online profiles, university students can control the number of questions they receive per week. University students have no obligation to MathNerds to respond to the questions, but their university professors may make it a course requirement. Questions remaining unanswered in a university student's queue for more than two days are moved to a general queue, where another university student can reply. The university students follow MathNerds’ inquiry-based guidelines to address the public school students' queries. These exchanges are monitored by the public school teachers and the university professors. "Rather than providing answers, the university students are trained to empower the younger ones with the ability to solve their own problems," Mahavier said.

Of course, the networks wouldn’t exist without the complex programming it takes to make them work. That’s where Paul Dawkins and Kyehong Kang, both assistant mathematics professors at Lamar, come in. Dawkins is lead programmer at MathNerds. Kang joined as a programmer for the networks and also researches on-line education to learn what works best. "Our goal is an automated system where partnerships between universities and K-through-12 schools can be created on-line and without the labor-intensive process that we currently use," Kang said. “The key is to make the process simple and seamless for the university professor and the school teacher by having downloadable materials, sample consent forms, online registration for their students, and an online learning community that allows ease of communication between all partners in the project." Kang stressed that, beyond all the technology, it is the partnership between the people that helps the younger school kids the most in learning math.

In the first year, MathNerds team members trained 259 university students, including education majors, math majors, mathematics club members and math graduate students, to answer questions using inquiry-based strategies. They trained 236 teachers and 806 students in the Texas public school system to use the website with 461 students submitting questions through the network. The MathNerds team encourages professors and their students to visit the public school students they are helping. "We have found that this personal contact helps to increase participation by the university students as well as introducing the younger students to the local universities," Mahavier said.

Will the math mentoring networks expand to help struggling students and train future teachers at a national level? The MathNerds are counting on it.