It was a warm Saturday afternoon and the smell of fresh tortillas wafted through the Mexican restaurant. Scarcely had the food arrived before I roughly pushed my plate aside and began scribbling on a napkin at a feverish pace. "What are you doing?" asked my younger sister, raising an eyebrow and swallowing a mouthful of food. I mumbled something about Pythagoras and the tile floor. I don't know if my sister shrugged, rolled her eyes, or stuck out her tongue in response; I was too busy writing to look up. A minute or two later, I slammed my hand on the napkin dramatically. "Q. E. D.!" I declared aloud. My parents gave me an inquisitive look before continuing their meal. I picked up my burrito and took a large triumphant bite. My entire face glowed with a secret delight. I was 14 years old, and I had just found a new proof for the Pythagorean Theorem...
Decades later, as I'm writing this blog post and recalling that glorious day, a smile covers my face. Now it's my husband who shrugs his shoulders when I tell him I'm writing about how fun and exciting math can be (he doesn't dare to roll his eyes or stick out his tongue). Maybe you, dear readers, are shrugging your shoulders, as well. Most likely you, like a majority of students, had no exposure to higher-level mathematical thinking until college, if at all. Not everyone was in 9th Grade Geometry Class with Mr. Gaston, who bared an uncanny resemblance to Crocodile Dundee and enthusiastically filled the board with mathematical proofs, golden locks waving and a look of concentration on his chiseled face. Mr. Gaston got his students excited about math - really excited. It wasn't just his good looks nor the promise of extra credit that motivated his students to look for proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem in tile floors of Mexican restaurants; He showed us that math is a magical game that reveals the entire universe in a whole a new light if you know how to approach it.
As Mr. Gaston inspired me years ago, I want to inspire my own children not just to excel at math, but to truly love it and live it. The problem is that, in general, before one can understand higher-level mathematics (the fun stuff), he or she must wade through the drudgery that is arithmetic - memorizing facts, learning the process for performing different types of calculations, etc... Most kids assume that this itself is "math" (because that it what they learn in school), and develop a distaste for it. While I agree that arithmetic is an important building block in mathematical understanding (Picasso first learned standard art techniques before exploring his own style), I don't see a reason not to introduce young children to more advanced mathematical concepts, not through equations, but through hands-on manipulatives and games. For example, my twins learned about the Fibonacci Sequence at age 3 (here's my blog post about it) not because I want them to be some sort of super math geniuses, but because it is fun (as math should be).
Nowadays, my twins, who are almost 7, are exploring Topology and Graph Theory (via Mobius strips and the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg puzzle), along with many other classic math and logic problems, in my new book, "Math and Magic in Wonderland."
In this interactive math adventure novel, Lulu and Elizabeth embark on a journey to a world filled with characters from Lewis Carroll's poetry. They are guided through this realm by Mrs. Magpie's Manual of Magic for Mathematical Minds. Readers are invited to play along with the girls as they solve each riddle to see if they have what it takes to outsmart the despised Bandersnatch and become Mathematical Royalty.
I authored this novel to reveal the magic and wonder of mathematics to young readers (and their parents) through an intriguing story. It really works! My own children are enthralled as we read each chapter and try out the activities. We've explored palindromes, solved magic squares, designed our own tessellations, calculated our ages on Mars, played with word ladders, discovered the power of exponents, and so much more.
The best part of the book is that it can be read over and over again and enjoyed on so many different levels. For example, my children are too young at the moment to recognize the reference to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" or pick up on the joke about irrational numbers, but they are being exposed to all those concepts (along with advanced vocabulary, history of famous mathematicians, hidden puns, etc..) and one day it will all 'click'. By inspiring my children to look at the world like mathematicians, I'm planting the seeds for them to one day have their own sparks of enlightenment, just like the Q. E. D. moment I had in that Mexican restaurant 23 years ago.
Here's an affiliate link to my book... I hope your family enjoys it as much as mine does!