The Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science (IMACS) recently released its first online algebra course, Algebra: Groups, Rings and Fields. This is the tenth course in the Elements of Mathematics: Foundations (EMF) program for talented secondary school students. Our latest self-paced offering has generated a fair amount of inquiries from parents seeking options for their mathematically advanced child. The answers to some of those questions can be found in the FAQ at elementsofmathematics.com. IMACS responds to others, which have been consolidated by topic, in this week’s blog post.
Q: My child aced pre-algebra and is ready for algebra. Why can’t I just enroll her in the first EMF algebra course?
When people use the term "algebra," they’re usually talking about high school algebra or what mathematicians call "elementary algebra." By contrast, EMF teaches the kind of algebra that a mathematics major at university learns called "abstract algebra." A student who has mastered pre-algebra is, no doubt, ready for high school algebra. However, this same student, no matter how talented, is simply not ready to jump directly into abstract algebra.
Why? Just as success in high school algebra is built on the foundation laid by elementary school math up through pre-algebra, success in abstract algebra requires a strong foundation in various mathematical structures and reasoning techniques that are rarely taught outside of a university setting. This important foundation is built up through the first nine courses of the EMF program. In fact, one might think of these early courses as constituting "pre-abstract algebra." As such, they are an integral part of the EMF program and essential to success in the later courses.
In case you’re wondering, students who complete the EMF algebra courses will have learned all of elementary algebra and be able to solve any high school algebra problem with ease. But they will also have learned a great deal more and be well-prepared to study the high-level mathematics that is at the heart of important disciplines such as particle physics and cryptography.
Q: What if my child already took high school algebra and geometry? Is there anything left for him to learn in EMF?
As IMACS principal founder and EMF co-author, Burt Kaufman, once wrote, "It is surely a sad state of affairs that in the traditional high school curricula, the student encounters very few, if any, mathematical ideas that postdate the seventeenth century. … It would be ludicrous if an English curriculum for the high school never contemplated confronting the student with a piece of literature written after Shakespeare."* That’s one key reason why the EMF curriculum was created—to teach modern mathematics to talented, young students who are capable of benefiting from advanced material that goes beyond the outdated math curricula used in schools.
Naturally, more experienced students will find some of the EMF material familiar, but EMF approaches these topics from a far more sophisticated standpoint. Between the new mathematical structures and techniques for reasoned argument that they will be learning, there is much for these students to gain in EMF if they are motivated to learn real mathematics as opposed to just school math.
Q: We tried other math programs for advanced kids, but they just seemed to be about going faster or preparing for competitions. That’s not working for our son who’s more of a deep thinker. I’ve heard that EMF takes a different approach. Can you explain?
First, a pair of quotes:
—Jim Simons, Mathematician and Founder of Renaissance Technologies
—Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education, Stanford University
The competition-inspired approach to math has its merits. But it’s hardly the only approach worthy of mathematically talented kids. The gifted population is filled with individuals who have exceptional talent and prefer to take their time. EMF is an ideal option for these students because the program is self-paced and encourages patience in coming to a deeper understanding of complex and beautiful ideas. At the same time, we’ve had numerous EMF students who also enjoy and excel at competition math. In fact, in situations where speed is of the essence, the non-standard mathematics to which EMF students are exposed gives them a distinct advantage over others who are seeing these ideas for the first time during a competition.
Q: You say that EMF is "mathematician math," and that it’s taught the way a math major at university would be taught. That’s nice, but what are the benefits for a talented child who has no interest in being a math major, let alone a mathematician?
Before your child writes off being a math major completely, especially if that choice is based on experiences with school math, consider the following:
—Keith Devlin, Professor of Mathematics, Stanford University
Whether your child decides to pursue a math major or not, there are several important skills that the EMF approach to mathematics teaches. As with all IMACS programs, EMF fosters the development of logical reasoning skills in young students. While some people believe that logic is cold and inhibits creativity (think: Star Trek’s Spock!), our experience teaching the EMF curriculum over the past 30+ years suggests otherwise. To the contrary, we have found that when IMACS students are equipped with the logic skills to construct their own well-reasoned arguments and critique those of others, the clarity of thought that this produces unleashes creative and innovative ideas that were previously unfocused or muddled.
Which brings us to how EMF encourages creative thinking. As Professor Devlin reminds us, mathematics is a creative discipline. The fact that what passes as "math" in schools is devoid of creativity should not be taken as evidence that true mathematics is indifferent to creative thinking. School math tends to take a "tell-then-drill" approach where the teacher states a rule and then students apply the rule to umpteen haphazard problem sets. By contrast, EMF uses carefully constructed exercises and interactive technology to guide students to their own "discovery" of mathematical results. To be successful in EMF, a student simply must think creatively in order to cross the bridge from keen mathematical observations to the "A-ha!" moments of intuitive understanding. And when these moments happen, the joy and pride of having climbed the intellectual mountain are profound.
Another skill that EMF promotes is abstract thinking. Imagine a world in which most jobs involve people interacting with tangible objects in the present. Perhaps you envisioned the Industrial Revolution, a time when mechanical inventions led to an explosion in manufacturing. Today, we find ourselves amidst a Knowledge Revolution wherein technological inventions mean that well-paying jobs require abstract thinking about intangible ideas such as code. This is obviously true in tech, but because tech touches every industry now, it’s also true for wide-ranging fields from medicine to music to law to film. It’s the question on many people’s minds: Are you going to design and program the robot, or will you be replaced by the robot? Whatever career your child pursues, he or she will almost certainly need to think abstractly. Abstract thinking is fundamental to the study of genuine mathematics, which is what EMF teaches.
Is EMF right for your child? IMACS created a 30-minute, online Aptitude Test to help prospective parents and students answer this question. Register to take the FREE test at elementsofmathematics.com. Extensive sample content from actual EMF courses is also available at elementsofmathematics.com.
LIMITED TIME OFFERS: Save 25% when you enroll on or before March 15, 2015 in the first EMF course (Operational Systems) or in the first ten courses (EMF Course Pack 10). Visit elementsofmathematics.com to enroll today!
* Kaufman, Burt, Jack Fitzgerald, and Jim Harpel. MEGSSS in Action. St. Louis: CEMREL, Inc., 1981.
The "learn to code" movement has emphasized teaching computer programming to children, and so many parents are asking, "Which language should my child learn?" It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the myriad choices: Java, Python, Ruby, C++, Objective-C, and so on. Ten years ago, the list of languages would have been different, but the question would still have been the same. So instead of focusing on learning a particular language that is popular at the moment and wondering if it’s the "right" choice, consider that your child would benefit most from learning the fundamental concepts in computer science that are applicable across all programming languages. Understanding these foundational ideas well enables a person to problem-solve in any programming environment more effectively than knowing the rules of syntax for one particular language. It’s a lot like the craft of photography. If you’ve mastered the fundamentals — composition, lighting, exposure, etc. — then you’re in a much better position to take memorable photographs regardless of whether you’re handed a Canon, an iPhone, or a disposable camera. The same is true in computer science where computational thinking and the ability to learn are and always will be more highly valued than code manipulation. Besides, by the time your child is a working professional, it’s likely that a different set of languages, some not yet invented, will be in vogue. Wouldn’t it be better for him or her to have a timeless set of skills and abilities?
A recent study published in the Philosophy of Mathematics Education Journal confirms that teachers’ images of mathematics and their mathematics history knowledge are interlinked. According to the study’s lead author, Danielle Goodwin of the Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science (IMACS), "By and large, the teachers with low history scores in this study were the teachers who exhibited narrow, negative views of mathematics."
Key findings from the study include:
- Respondents with low history scores
- were more likely to indicate that they believed mathematics overall was like "cooking a meal" or "a tool for use in everyday life."
- were more likely to believe that mathematics is a disjointed collection of facts, rules and skills than respondents with high history scores.
- appeared to be more likely to agree with the statement that "the process of doing mathematics is predictable" than those with higher history scores.
- Respondents with high history scores
- exhibited more favorable views of mathematics.
- were more likely to indicate that they believed mathematics overall is like "doing a dance" or "an art, a creative activity, the product of the imagination."
- disagreed more often with the statement "everything important about mathematics is already known" than did their low-scoring counterparts.
Attitudes Influence Decisions that Affect Students
Why does this matter? Because educators’ views of mathematics affect student learning experiences in a variety of ways, from daily classroom instruction to curriculum selection and development to far-reaching proposals for national math education reform.
Teachers’ images of math are typically based on their own limited experiences as young students, and so teacher education programs should incorporate mathematics history into their curriculum as a way of reshaping attitudes, the study suggests. Doing so would help future teachers develop an appreciation for and understanding of math as a subject that is alive and fundamentally creative. Fostering this viewpoint could help teachers help their students understand that mathematics is a natural place for inventive problem-solving where questioning and investigating are highly valued.
"Teachers who have rule-oriented images of mathematics can weaken student learning by representing mathematics in misleading ways," says Goodwin. Instead of conveying as healthy the struggle of intellectual discovery that naturally takes place in mathematics when new ideas are explored, "struggle" in US K-12 math classrooms has come to mean being "bad at math." This unfortunate association has left generations of Americans hating math and believing in the myth that they are not "math people."
Current teachers and pre-service teachers who want to improve their ability to teach math don’t have to wait for curriculum changes at schools of education. There are wonderful and accessible resources that provide a willing and curious mind with a deeper understanding of mathematics in the context of its rich history.
Recommended Reading and Viewing
If you’re still looking for a holiday gift for your child’s math teacher, perhaps one of the recommended books below would be appreciated. For the visually-inclined,
the videos and movies that follow provide many hours of awe-inspiring and sometimes humorous enlightenment.
- Journey through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics by William Dunham
- The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffman
- e: The Story of a Number by Eli Maor
- Women in Mathematics by Lynn M. Osen
- The Joy of Pi by David Blatner
- Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter
- Videos and Movies:
- Mathematics: Making the Invisible Visible, a five-lecture survey course by Stanford mathematics professor Keith Devlin
- A Mathematical Mystery Tour, BBC documentary looking at some of the greatest problems in the history of mathematics, some of which have since been solved
- Fermat’s Last Theorem, BBC documentary about mathematician Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem
- The Story of 1, BBC documentary about the history of numbers
- A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe as mathematician John Nash (PG-13)
- The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch as mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing (PG-13)
This month’s IMACS Blog features Shiva Oswal, one of the top performers in our Elements of Mathematics: Foundations (EMF) self-paced, online program for talented secondary school students. Shiva has been enrolled in EMF since the beginning when IMACS introduced the first course of the series in late 2012. As his mom told us, “[O]ur son is an avid user of online educational resources. I recently asked him to pick his favorite online course. He answered, ‘most definitely EMF, by a wide margin’.”
Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you enjoy doing.
I’ll be turning 11 soon, and I love the EMF courses! As a history buff, I really enjoy reading about decisive battles in world history. I also like playing board games and computer games. Right now my favorite board game is Robo Rally, and my favorite computer game is Castle Empire. On the weekends, I participate in Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) events. Soccer is another activity I enjoy. My favorite position is goalie.
You’ve done some amazing things already at a young age. Tell us about the accomplishments of which you are most proud.
This year, I scored 24 out of 25 to earn a gold pin in the Mathematical Olympiads for Elementary and Middle Schools (MOEMS), and was named MOEMS “Mathlete of the Year” for my geographic region. I also invented a new board game called “Minetrap”. I am currently working on publishing my game. If you would like updates, email me at shivarasul [at] gmail [dot] com. Finally, I completed the first seven EMF courses and am almost finished with the eighth course. I am excited to start the ninth course, Number Theory soon.
How did you become interested in mathematics?
When I was in preschool, I was doing multiplication. When math in regular school became too easy, I decided to homeschool so I could work on challenging math problems and concepts.
How did you become interested in taking EMF courses?
My mom encouraged me to try the EMF courses, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
What are the things you enjoy most about EMF?
I like the way concepts are explained. The format of EMF courses, reading followed by exercises, helps check my understanding. The interactive tools such as The String Game make learning math fun. Also the point system (i.e., ability to level up based on mastery of material) makes EMF addictive.
What are some ways in which your EMF experience has had a positive effect on your academic and non-academic pursuits?
When I did my first EMF course, Operational Systems, I was very new to the field. I learned a great deal about operational systems and modular arithmetic after I completed this course. I have grown by leaps and bounds as an analytical thinker as EMF courses force me to think. The program has also helped me improve my skills at strategy games like chess.
What kinds of things do you see yourself doing in the future?
First and foremost, I would like to complete all 15 EMF courses. I hope to get to Calculus before I’m 13 years old. I am also working on becoming a professional soccer player.
Thank you, Shiva, for sharing your story and congratulations on your amazing accomplishments!
Half Price Holiday Sale: Try the first course, Operational Systems, at 50% off the regular price when you enroll on or before December 20, 2014.
Bundled Savings: Save 25% on EMF Course Pack 9, which includes the first nine courses, when you enroll on or before December 20, 2014.
Tomorrow is Halloween! Whether it’s watching a horror movie or jumping out from behind a door, many people find it fun to be scared or scary on this holiday. It’s also a good time to revisit what parents can do to keep their children from becoming afraid of math. Math anxiety is unnecessarily common in the United States. As a country we have focused intentily on promoting foundational literacy skills, but numeracy skills can also be fostered from an early age. At home, don’t just read to your toddler and pre-schooler; “math” to them also. Get down on the floor with your kids and some blocks to show them what “more” and “less” and different numbers actually mean. Make patterns out of just about anything age-safe such as different color socks or whole fruits and vegetables. When your kids are around 5-6 years old, playing with coins (counting and adding pennies, exchanging coins, etc.) on the floor is another fun activity.
Math outdoors is fun too! Go to the park and arrange rocks or wood chips into rows and columns. Draw shapes in the sandbox. Are there shapes that look the same no matter where you stand? Which shapes look like they’ve flipped or turned? Make shapes out of sticks. Compare the sticks. Which is longer? Which is shorter? Add sticks to go from a triangle to a rectangle to a pentagon and so on. If you keep adding sticks, what does your shape start to look like? (Don’t freak out, but you just did a little Calculus.)
Good old-fashioned floor time or outdoor time are excellent ways of cementing learning with positive memories. As your kids get older, make sure they are exposed regularly throughout their childhood and adolecense to adults who explain math well and enjoy it, especially if you don’t. And if you have math anxiety yourself, make that your best-kept secret. Math doesn’t have to be scary.
Now, what do you get when you take the circumference of a jack-o-lantern divided by its diameter? Answer: A pumpkin π. Happy Halloween from IMACS!
Once upon a time, there was a bright student who first came to IMACS when he was already in high school. He was interested in learning to program and had heard high praise for our University Computer Science courses. The class began smoothly as teacher and pupil progressed through the principles of computational thinking. This student, who was used to conquering schoolwork with his brain tied behind his back, slayed the early exercises with ease. As the assignments quickly became more challenging, however, he found himself unaccustomed to the effort of intellectual struggle. One day, our earnest student declared to his IMACS instructor that a certain programming problem was simply impossible to solve! Our wise and experienced teacher considered this student with a measured gaze and pointed out, “But you’ve only thought about it for three minutes.” The student, quite politely, seriously, and honestly replied, “Well, yeah.” If only he had started IMACS when he was younger. The moral of the story: The earlier the experience of true intellectual challenge, the stronger the will of the mind to persevere. (In other words, enroll your elementary school child in IMACS today!)
This month the IMACS Blog caught up with Azzara Nincevic, who has been a star student at IMACS for seven years now. Azzara enjoys reading, drawing, and classical ballet. Although she dances at least 12 hours per week and performs throughout the year, she always finds time for IMACS.
“When I began IMACS in first grade, I immediately loved it.” Azzara says. “Having taken an interest in math, I quickly learned the traditional material and was looking for more challenging enrichment. When I attended class at IMACS, all of the problems were thought-provoking.”
As a member of her school’s math team, Azzara attends competitions such as MATHCOUNTS and Mu Alpha Theta where her IMACS background has been an invaluable asset. As Azzara describes it, “The IMACS curriculum helped me to develop logical thinking skills and the ability to quickly solve math problems, which are key to succeeding at math competitions.”
“With the preparation that IMACS gave me, I was able to score a 5 on the AP® Computer Science exam as a seventh grader.”
While Azzara’s achievements in mathematics and ballet, by themselves, are enough to impress anyone, it’s her recent performance on the AP® Computer Science A exam that readers will recognize as a rare feat. Soon after starting IMACS Math Enrichment program, Azzara enrolled in our Computer Enrichment & Virtual Robotics class where she developed a great interest in programming. Over the years, she continued with IMACS University Computer Science (UCS) track, which culminates in our AP® Computer Science: Java Programming course.
AP® exams are typically administered to high school students, but at the time that Azzara was ready for APCS, she was only just entering seventh grade. That didn’t deter her. “After inquiring, my mom and I found out that there is no minimum age requirement for an AP® exam, so I registered. With the preparation that IMACS gave me, I was able to score a 5 on the AP® Computer Science exam as a seventh grader.”
With such a busy schedule, Azzara appreciates that one of the greatest benefits of IMACS is that the computer science and logic programs are accessible online and self-paced. “I was able to excel at my own pace and access the IMACS curriculum anytime and anywhere.”
What does the future hold for Azzara? “I am entering the eighth grade with a greater passion for and interest in math and computer science. IMACS made me realize that I would like to pursue computer science in college and after. The fundamental skills that I have learned in the UCS courses and the logical thinking skills I have learned in the Math Enrichment and Mathematical Logic courses give me the advantage I need to be successful. As such, I plan to continue with IMACS in the upcoming years.”
Homeschooling is growing in the United States, having shifted from the “fringe” toward the mainstream. In January 2014, the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) estimated that there were 2.2 million1 K-12 home-educated students in the US, up from an estimated 1.5 million2 in 2007. According to the NHERI, one of the most common reasons that families choose homeschooling is to “customize or individualize the curriculum and learning environment for each child.” Not surprisingly, families with gifted children make up a significant part of the current homeschool movement.
If you thought that homeschooling meant having to teach your child all subjects on your own while sitting together at the kitchen table until you drive each other crazy, think again. Modern technology has opened up a world of educational opportunities. Online courses abound in every subject you could imagine. Social media allows homeschool parents to connect and form co-ops where they can share the work of teaching. Some public school districts offer classes taught by credentialed teachers several days a week at a homeschool campus. And numerous educational organizations offer local day classes for homeschoolers, such as the IMACS Homeschool Program. The job of teaching no longer has to be carried out solely by the homeschool parent.
Homeschooling also supports the need that many gifted students have to be self-directed learners. As eIMACS student and 2011 US Girls Junior (U21) Chess Champion Rachel Gologorsky said, “I recognized this as an excellent opportunity to have a say in my education.” In addition to allowing her to participate in the decision-making process, homeschooling provides Rachel with the flexibility she needs to develop her incredible chess talent, including travelling to national and international competitions.
Another oft-cited benefit of homeschooling is the freedom to custom-tailor an educational program that is matched, subject by subject, to a student’s abilities, learning style, and processing speed. Children can fully develop their strongest areas by going as deeply into a subject as they wish or by advancing as quickly as they are able while getting the appropriate level of support they need in other areas. This can be a good fit for many gifted children who, contrary to common misconceptions, are not always the fastest or highest achieving in every subject.
Consider what mathematician and hedge fund billionaire, James Simons, said in a recent New York Times article: "I wasn’t the fastest guy in the world," Dr. Simons said of his youthful math enthusiasms. "I wouldn’t have done well in an Olympiad or a math contest. But I like to ponder. And pondering things, just sort of thinking about it and thinking about it, turns out to be a pretty good approach." Today, a student like the young Dr. Simons can explore deep ideas in mathematics on his or her own schedule with self-paced, homeschool-friendly options such as eIMACS and Elements of Mathematics: Foundations.
A wealth of advice on homeschooling is available online, from helping families decide whether it is a feasible option to helping homeschooled high schoolers apply to college. Speaking of college, did you know that elite universities such as Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Princeton and Yale have sections on their websites dedicated to admissions information for homeschoolers? Homeschooled students are hot! As one Stanford Alumni Magazine article explained, “Stanford has found that the brightest homeschoolers bring a mix of unusual experiences, special motivation and intellectual independence that makes them a good bet to flourish on the Farm.”
While homeschooling has its advantages, it is not for every family. The benefits described above often come with meaningful sacrifices that should be considered carefully. Many families are already well-served by their local public or private schools. But for those who need a more customized education for any number of reasons, including giftedness, homeschooling today offers many options that make this path highly accessible.
If you are considering homeschooling your gifted child, start by visiting the following informative websites:
Families in the South Florida area may also find The Home Educator Magazine to be a helpful resource for local information.
1 From http://www.nheri.org/research/research-facts-on-homeschooling.html
2 From http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2009030
In The New York Times article, “But I Want to Do Your Homework,” author Judith Newman describes how she was driven, over her 12-year-old son’s objections, to help him ace his literature essay, only to earn a dismal grade. Her admission may sound familiar to many well-intentioned parents who believe they are doing what’s best for their child’s long-term success. Unfortunately, that’s not the case as Newman points out:
“Sociologists at the University of Texas at Austin and Duke University assessed the effect of more than 60 kinds of parental involvement on academic achievement. Read it and weep, helicopter parents: Across age, race, gender and socioeconomic status, most help had neither a positive or negative effect, and many kinds drove down a kid’s test scores and grades. One of the biggest culprits? Homework help.”
It’s not a crime for parents with talented kids to envision them accumulating straight A’s and academic awards on their way to reaching their full potential. However, knowing that it’s okay to be wrong gives children the permission they need to take the kinds of intellectual risks required in order to achieve great things, as Newman learned:
“When I confessed my sins to Michael Goldspiel, my son’s beloved assistant principal … he summed up the problem better than I could. “Being wrong is part of the process of understanding,” he said. “Going out on a limb, being willing to take a chance, is a critical skill not just for homework, but for life.” He couldn’t be more correct.”
If you’re not planning on pursuing a so-called STEM career, do you really need to be good at math? Yes, but not just for the often-stated reason that people encounter math regularly throughout their lives. Being able to handle everyday math is certainly important. For example: If you’ve been offered varying aid packages by different universities, which one makes the most financial sense for your family? If you’re deciding between leasing or buying a car, which is the best deal in the long run? While no one doubts that being better at money arithmetic would benefit individuals and society as a whole, such specific situations require a narrow skill set.
The benefits of being good at math, however, go beyond correctly computing the tip at dinner to a wide array of circumstances that call for abilities prized in virtually every field of employment. For example, people who have learned to think mathematically are better at understanding the structure required to complete a given task. The first step in solving any math problem is sizing up the situation. What do you already know? What information is missing? Can you break the larger problem into more manageable pieces? Having both the skills and confidence to dissect complex problems, including ones that look nothing like what you’ve seen before, is one of the main benefits of becoming good at math.
People who have learned to think mathematically are also better at assimilating new ideas. Once you’ve assessed the situation, broken down the problem, and gathered the necessary pieces, how do you put it all together to get from where you are to where you want to be? When faced with a novel situation, can you devise an approach where there wasn’t one before? If you’ve studied mathematics in a way that pushes you to think both logically and creatively, then you will be much better prepared to handle an ever-changing variety of circumstances that call for these skills, no matter what career you choose.
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