[How-To] Make Math Fun
Against a troubling backdrop of math learning loss among U.S. schoolchildren,* there are bright spots at Stevens, where faculty leaders are deeply invested in nurturing a love of math.
Since 2017, the Stevens Math Circle Initiative — building on a model that originated in Eastern Europe — has offered free math enrichment to local elementary and high school students with grant support, including a recent grant from the National Science Foundation. The Stevens Mathematical Olympiad has held its annual math competition for grades 3–12 since 2016. Together, these programs designed for students who have an interest in math have reached well over 1,000 children.
Math Olympiad Committee chair Pavel Dubovski and Math Circle co-organizers Jan Cannizzo and Andrey Nikolaev — Stevens math professors — agree that parents and caregivers play an important role in nurturing a love of math in kids. The experts’ advice:
1. Embrace positivity, and wrong answers.
Countries whose children test well in math revere — not fear — math, Cannizzo says. Embrace a “no-fear” zone and reassure kids that wrong answers are OK and utterly important. “You have to go down many, many dead ends before you arrive at real understanding,” Cannizzo says.
2. Have a conversation
Ask questions to spark math discovery: Why is a negative times a negative always a positive? Have relaxed discussions and perhaps explore a “Math Problem of the Week,” such as one by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Dubovski advises. “The most important part is that the child develops into a person with the ability to think for themselves,” Nikolaev says.
3. Stamp out stereotypes.
Some stereotypes about girls being less successful in math persist. Cannizzo urges that all students be reassured that math success comes through hard work and perseverance, not a “fixed” talent; that math can be a fun, communal activity, not a lonely one; that math careers make the world a better place.
4. Seek fun, high-quality resources.
Entertaining, effective math videos have blossomed on YouTube: Numberphile, 3Blue1Brown. Other top picks: the MSRI Mathematical Circles Library, a book series; SmartGames.com; Sudoku and KenKen puzzles, which train logical reasoning; books, e.g., by Martin Gardner and Raymond Smullyan. Many activities can be adapted for struggling students.
Math enrichment and tutoring programs play an important role in fostering math achievement and interest but can be costly. Ask about scholarships. The Global Math Circle — an online program — offers some scholarships and sliding scale payments. Parents can also unite to advocate for a Math Circle or other math enrichment at their school.
— Beth Kissinger
* Among U.S. 13-year-olds, the average math score declined 9 points between the 2019–2020 and 2022–23 school years. Declines were seen across lines of race, class and geography. Most states also saw declines in fourth- and eighth-grade math scores from 2019–2022.
Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress; The New York Times