January 18, 2018
Po-Shen Loh, Math Enthusiast, Expii Founder, national Math Olympiad Coach
“I’m just not a math person.” I hear this phrase all the time from both current and former students alike. But I believe anyone and everyone can be a “math person.”
As a math professor at Carnegie Mellon University, the United States International Math Olympiad Coach, and as the Founder of Expii, an online learning platform currently focused in STEM subjects, I interact every day with those who identify as “math people.” For those who feel otherwise, I believe they just have not discovered the right resources to empower their abilities. It all starts with how we think and feel about math.
One of the main questions I tackled, and what inspired me to found Expii is: How do we prove to people who have been conditioned to believe that they aren’t “math people,” that they can be “math people”? I believe the first step that we have as educators is to address head-on the question of students’ engagement in their learning experiences. This includes questioning equal access, the quality of the resources provided to students, and how to give personal attention to each individual student. If we find ways to give all students equal access to high-quality resources that connect not only on an intellectual level, but also a personal and emotional one, then we can revolutionize the way we teach math and the way students respond to math.
Genuine and continuous engagement is paramount to math mastery.
Imagine this: conceptually, math looks like stepping stones in a river. If you can’t leap to the first stone in front of you, you probably can’t reach the one after that, or cross the river at all. But if you understand the first concept, or jump to that first stone, then you can definitely understand the next concept and jump to the next stone. The process of reaching a solution can be deduced once the student understands the basic concepts underlying the problem. When you get really good at thinking in this way, then instead of jumping across stepping stones every time you want to cross the river, you can use those steps to build a bridge, making travel much quicker and easier. This is the sort of reason and logic that math teaches us.
Becoming a “math person” simply means understanding the basics and building upwards, so the question becomes, how do we keep students genuinely interested and engaged with learning those math concepts in the classroom?
I believe there are two paths to address this question. The first is to increase students’ interest and motivation to learn and the second is to provide free and universally accessible tools so that everyone can experience a high-quality education. Together, I believe these paths will lead learners to a new understanding and appreciation not only of math, but also the joys of learning as a whole.
Whether you are a struggling student or one seeking more challenges, if you receive resources that lack enthusiasm, interest, or are explaining topics poorly, the likelihood of you remaining engaged decreases. I believe that explanations and questions written in entertaining and meaningful ways by individuals all over the world will excite all kinds of students to become “math people.”
The reason I mention openly licensed materials is because that is how we are trying to democratize learning at Expii. By inviting learners and teachers from all over the world to create their own problems and explanations, we will cultivate and share a variety of perspectives on how to learn a concept or solve a problem. We have catalyzed an initiative to promote this idea and further diversify our teaching methods called Project Spark, gathering creative minds together to make high-quality, entertaining, exciting, and meaningful videos or written pieces to teach math and science in new ways. The diversity of examples and teachers of all ages and backgrounds through Project Spark and Expii’s internal team of writers allows students the choice of the teaching styles that they most identify with.
This leads to a very crucial moment for any learner. They can see for themselves how math is relevant to their daily lives as they connect with others around the world. It is here that we are challenging the norms and inspiring a cultural shift in what it means to learn math.
The second path to address engagement is to adjust the learning process and to make high-quality resources available to everyone. At Expii, we have built a revolutionary tool, which utilizes advanced technology to rethink learning interactions at the individual level. In a traditional classroom setting, students have a class, then homework, and then an exam. When a student learns through Expii, they are provided with a personal learning experience. They are first asked what they want to learn, then the platform adaptively walks them through the problems that support their personal learning goals. This means that as the student progresses, the platform adjusts the difficulty level of the problems to either challenge or discover areas where the student needs more attention. It then directs them to the specific topics they need. In this unique learning process, there is no discrete class, homework, or exam. They are all mixed together just like the experience of one-on-one tutoring. The Expii platform is free to use and accessible to anyone through the internet, meaning all students can benefit from the personal tutor experience without the pricetag.
I believe these two pathways are how we start to change how people think about math. It is up to us as educators and leaders in STEM to show students that math is not something to be afraid of, rather it is something that can enrich their lives. If we empower learners to strive towards cleverness, ingenuity, and logic and away from the belief that they can’t be “math people,” then we will see a drastic change in the breadth and scope of STEM education and careers. It all begins and ends with what people believe.
To learn more about the work we are doing or to explore the ever-growing resources at Expii, our platform is free to use at expii.com.