Mathematics: beyond abstraction

Small Number and the Old Canoe, one of the stories that teach match. | Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University

While it is something that is essential to our everyday lives, mathematics often has negative connotations attached to it, especially among students. Math Catcher, an outreach program run out of Simon Fraser University, works with students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 and aims to fight the idea that math is abstract and just boring work they’re forced to do in school.

Veselin Jungic, professor of mathematics at SFU and coordinator of the Math Catcher program, has taught mathematics for forty years and he is not surprised many students struggle to engage with math given how it is often taught.

“We make mathematics abstract,” says Jungic. “We just put facts and techniques on the board, and we wonder why students don’t see the relationship between the math and their lives. Why would anybody see all these numbers, x’s and y’s on the board, and think that’s part of their life?”

In the classroom

selin Jungic, coordinator of the Match Catcher program | Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University

A major problem Jungic sees is just how early negative feelings towards mathematics can set in.

“If I go to a Grade 5 classroom, there’s always a kid who says, “I hate math,” and you really wonder what happened between Kindergarten and Grade 5 that has caused that dislike already,” says Jungic.

Jungic and the Math Catcher program do many school visits throughout the year, and when working with students he tries to engage with them by pulling math away from being strictly on a board.

“I start my workshop by introducing myself, my work and my family, all in mathematical terms,” says Jungic. “I do puzzles, and they are always stories. You give them the story, and once you get their attention and trust, then there is the chance you can work with them and create something that will benefit them mathematically.”

Jungic knows that completely changing someone’s outlook on the subject in just one class isn’t necessarily going to happen, but what he does hope is that he can plant a seed of intrigue and curiosity in students that might make them more receptive to mathematics going forwards.

“Sometimes, teachers are surprised how well students react to what we do. We bring excitement about mathematics to classrooms, and I hope that something will stay with the students in the future, some of that excitement.”

Reaching everyone

A feature of the Math Catcher program, as well as other volunteer work that Jungic does, is its strong Aboriginal component. It stems from the First Nations Math Education Workshop, a conference held in 2009 that Jungic helped organize.

“The organizers invited some elders,” he says, “and also elementary and high school teachers and a group of academics. The idea was that we talk about mathematics and Indigenous people: what is it that we need to do to improve involvement of Aboriginal students in mathematics?”

The workshop’s final report included the fact that only two per cent of BC’s Aboriginal population completed Principles of Mathematics 12 at the time, compared to 25 per cent for the whole population.

“The conclusions were that we need to start promoting and teaching mathematics earlier,” says Jungic, “and that we should teach it along with some kind of cultural component.”

For that second point came Small Number, the main character in over twenty animated short films created by the Math Catcher program and SFU. He is an Aboriginal youth who uses math to solve problems in many different situations, another way that Math Catcher aims to bring mathematics to life in the minds of students. And along with classroom visits, Math Catcher and SFU hold programs like the SFU Academic Summer Camp for Aboriginal Students, and the Aboriginal Students Math and Science Workshop.

“For the Math and Science Workshop,” says Jungic, “we bring Aboriginal students from all over the Lower Mainland to the Burnaby campus. They are mostly Grade 11’s, and we promote scholarships for young learners, so they see that there is support for them.”

Jungic’s goal is for more students to become mathematically literate, which he sees as key to life as an adult and citizen in our society.

“We cannot escape mathematics. I think the idea that you can manipulate people, starting with bills, how you vote, how you present your opinion…I think that we can be better citizens if we know mathematics is all around us. We don’t need to be mathematicians, but we need to know that math is an important part of our lives.”

For more information on the Math Catcher program, visit www.sfu.ca/mathcatcher.

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