Bethel students grab math with both hands

jbecknell@enquirerherald.comMay 8, 2014 

— A tricycle with square wood wheels. A box of plastic, interlocking gears. A window filled with a repeating pattern of hexagons.

In Patricia Smith’s Bethel Elementary School classroom, this is how students learn math.

The 72 fifth-grade math students in Smith’s classes spent an hour exploring a dozen math puzzles or real-life math and engineering problems on Wednesday.

It’s just part of Smith’s ongoing quest to teach math in a way that requires her students to grab it with both hands.

“I believe in them being able to take a hold of their own learning,” Smith said of the math exercises. “They have the potential to take charge of their own learning.”

The 12 “math problem” stations set up for three groups of students to explore, she said, are “different things that require mathematical thinking. It’s presenting them with a problem that requires mathematics to solve.”

In the square-wheeled tricycle, for example, students measure the side of each wheel and count the number of revolutions required for the tricycle to roll across a track. They also were asked to determine how many revolutions would be required for it to roll on a longer track.

In the gear activity, students solve problems using a set of plastic, interlocking gears. They are asked how many rotations of the first gear are required to make the last gear turn.

And at the hexagon window, students mull the question of how many same-sized hexagons, each placed side by side, would be needed to fill the entire window.

Several of the students said they were sometimes perplexed by the math problems and almost always challenged.

“It’s really a lot of mental work,” said Cierra Hill, 11, who said she likes math. “You’ve got to make sure you know how to do the problem or you won’t get it right.”

Brooke Jones, 10, agreed. “It makes you think,” she said.

Smith floated among her students for the day as a brightly costumed character she called Paty Mathematica, who wore a bright green ruler and protractors for oversized eyeglasses, a vest and bright purple striped tights. Paty Mathematica, she said, was visiting the class in honor of April as Math Awareness Month.

“I can’t predict what’s in their future,” Smith said. “But I need them to discover that they have the confidence and the ability to persevere in whatever they might face.”

Smith said part of the inspiration for her hands-on math day came from a new mathematics museum in Manhattan.

Smith said the museum also has a traveling math exhibit that visits schools, and she tried to schedule a visit for the exhibit to Clover.

The exhibit visit didn’t work out, Smith said, so she came up with the idea to create her own equivalent of such an exhibit. She said her two adult sons helped her create the 12 stations of real-life math problems.

“This is just exposing them beyond the textbook, it’s exposing them to math around us,” Smith said. “It’s not just a problem and it’s not just a number. It’s more than that.”

Smith said not all students have the same academic ability. However, when they are faced with real-life math challenges, she said, that tends to level the playing field.

“To me, this is how you learn. My goal is to build confidence in them to be independent thinkers,” she said.

Smith said she frequently uses hands-on math problems in her lessons, so her students are used to facing a challenge.

She said she and the students will go over each of the math exercises in class later. She said students will discuss what they learned and the class will talk about real-life applications of such problems.

She also said some of the math concepts students are exploring in her 12 stations will be presented to students again as they move forward in more advanced math classes.

“Now,” she said, “they have an experience they can relate it to.”

Jennifer Becknell •  803-329-4077

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