“Math isn’t fundamentally about numbers — it’s a way of thinking about the world,” says John Ewing, president of Math for America (MƒA).
In its own words, MƒA works to “make teaching a viable, rewarding, and respected career choice for the best minds in science and mathematics.” To that end, MƒA identifies outstanding K-12 mathematics and science teachers and awards renewable four-year fellowships, which provide stipends and connect teachers with one another to foster collaboration and ongoing learning. The goal is to inspire outstanding teachers to stay in the classroom, as well as to amplify their impact while they are there. There are currently more than 1,000 MƒA teachers in New York City.
MƒA prides itself on what it calls a “teacher-to-teacher” approach to professional development: MƒA teachers lead a variety of courses each semester for and with their peers. As part of this community-building activity, MƒA holds an annual event called MT² — Master Teachers on Teaching — in which MƒA Master Teachers give TED-style talks and share their expertise with the MƒA community.
The title of this year’s MT² was “The State of STEM-ocracy,” with talks from 11 Master Teachers focusing on democratic fairness and due process in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and society. The event — scheduled to coincide with Election Day on November 8 — drew almost 200 teachers to Manhattan’s Flatiron District, where they were joined by more than 100 more teachers online (the event was streamed). “Every year, we try to hook into something that’s going on in the rest of the country, and this year the hook seemed pretty obvious,” says Ewing. “The teachers were fielding a lot of questions in their classes, and we wanted to bring those conversations to the whole community.” Among the Master Teachers speaking to the theme of “STEM-ocracy” were Adam Zaid, who gave a talk about how the mathematics of voting can produce unexpected majorities and pluralities in elections, and Shannon Guglielmo, who demonstrated how students can design their own graph-theory lessons about the layout of access points to New York City’s public transit system. And Andrew Wille delivered a surprising presentation inspired by Lewis Carroll, about how even the rules of mathematical logic may not have ‘fairness’ built into them.
The theme of democratic equity as it impacts STEM education came out in ways unrelated to national politics as well. MƒA Master Teacher Michelle Sims, a high school algebra teacher at Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies in the Bronx, was inspired by a talk given by an elementary school math teacher who bridged the skills gap for her incoming students by having them work together in small groups, with lessons targeted to their particular level of proficiency. After hearing the talk, Sims decided to implement a variation on the same idea in her own high school classroom.
Marvin Antebi-Gruszka, a fourth-year MƒA Master Teacher, approached the evening’s theme from an unusual angle with his talk, “Cleaning Up Our Ideas on Confusion and Ignorance: Why Not to Just Sweep Them Under the Rug.” As most STEM educators necessarily focus on helping their students master the curricula, Antebi-Gruszka drew attention to an equally necessary part of the learning process: confusion and failure. He asked: Could teacher focus on producing ‘right answers,’ without encouraging the mistake-driven processes that underlie the understanding of those answers, be subtly corrupting the process of learning STEM subjects?
“It’s really important as teachers for us to recognize that students don’t come to us as prodigies,” Antebi-Gruszka says. “Most people who become teachers tend to have done well in school, so we don’t necessarily come with that experience of what it was like to struggle or fail.” To fill in this intellectual empathy gap, Antebi-Gruszka offered up a painful experience from his own childhood: the “week-in, week-out process of disappointing my mother,” who always found fault in the way Antebi-Gruszka cleaned up the house. “I just didn’t understand what I had done wrong, and I didn’t understand how I could get better,” he recalls. “And it’s often very difficult to bring that level of empathy to our own students.”
Events such as MT² not only foster MƒA’s mission directly but also highlight the centrality of mathematics in society. “Math is everywhere in elections and in civic life,” Ewing says. “It’s in the way states redistrict themselves. It’s the way they ensure valid election results. And in cases where there are not just two but three or four candidates in an election, it’s the way candidates strategize about building their campaigns: using mathematics.
And math can help us see inequities and unfairness,” he says. “It can shine light onto the places in society where we are dividing things up, and help people determine whether the process is fair. The truth is, math is not quite so abstract these days.”