Engaging Young Students in Math [A Student’s Perspective]

By: Karen Kauffmann

Math was my favorite subject in elementary school, but probably not for the most admirable reasons.  Rather than being fascinated by number crunching, math was my favorite subject purely because it was the subject that came most easily to me.  Any subject gets dry quickly when the topics are hard to relate to, and it’s understandable that learning how to plot points on a grid or draw an acute angle can feel very abstract to an elementary school student.

When I was in elementary school, there were far more students than computers available.  As a result, we’d always have classroom “rotations” where everyone would get a set amount of time to play educational games on a computer before returning to standard classroom assignments.  To put into economics terms, the students’ demand for time playing the computer games was far greater than the supply of computers or even the supply of beneficial content available in these games.  This led to many hours spent embarking on the monotonous journey of tearing workbook pages out of a teal workbook and writing answers in thinly outlined boxes to practice multiplication tables and other standards.  Never known for having a particularly great attention span, I spent a significant portion of time allocated to completing these worksheets staring out the window, and it’s safe to assume I wasn’t daydreaming about the product of five and three. Learning math via computer games brought excitement to a subject that otherwise feels repetitive. When trying to learn something that may be challenging and tedious, there’s nothing like flying objects accompanied by a score counter to capture the attention of the learner.

Considering K-12 math is a very linear progression of subjects building off the previous course material, it’s essential to develop a solid base of understanding at a young age. For a long time, I held the assumption that basic math was used frequently in day to day life, but anything beyond simple functions was too abstract to ever have a practical application. Now, I will be starting college in the fall as a computer science undergraduate and am beginning to understand the importance of algorithms and mathematical logic in computing. Considering the increased role of software in the world today, understanding principles of math is essential in many industries.

Looking back on my 13 years of public education, I’m really grateful to have received a solid base of understanding in math. I was fortunate that math was a subject that usually came reasonably easily to me, but I can understand the frustration from my peers who get caught in the mindset that they “just aren’t math people”. When I was in the process of selecting a college major, it was impossible to ignore the prevalence of mathematics courses in many of the major requirement flowcharts. If a student wants to help engineer solutions to the world’s problems, it’s going to take a substantial understanding of mathematical principles. This isn’t meant to diminish the importance of the humanities; those are essential as well, as most issues are cross-disciplinary and ultimately end up in that realm. I just believe a lot of students lose interest in math more easily when concepts start to get more complicated, and in turn, seem more abstract and impractical. Many future opportunities are not available without an interest and appreciation for math, and that interest needs to be sparked at a young age for best results.

I still recall my thought process when seeing the job posting stating that Sokikom was looking to hire an intern to help them “revolutionize K-12 education”. Of course, I was initially intrigued by the opportunity to enhance my own abilities. I wanted to learn more about programming and software development before beginning my formal college education. However, once I was done being self-centered, I became fascinated by the product due to recollections of teaching methods I was exposed to in elementary school. I’ve already touched on my less than stellar attention span, but it’s worth reiterating that I’ve never been a big fan of traditional classroom settings. It’s really challenging to listen to a lecture and sit still for an extended period of time. Knowing that I’m far from the only one in this boat, it means a lot to me to contribute to an effort that should enhance students’ experiences in classrooms across the nation.

For as much as I’ve been focusing on experiences as a student, implementing new techniques in a classroom shouldn’t be a one way street. I may be just a high school graduate with very little point of reference, but I’m still confident that teaching has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world. Developing lesson plans that will keep a room of students focused for hours day in and day out has to be quite grueling. If we can develop effective supplemental classroom tools, perhaps that would allow teachers to focus their energy on some of their many other efforts and responsibilities.

Taking a highly structured curriculum and presenting concepts to students in a way that can hold their attention is an incredibly challenging task.  However, I believe that technology is only going to become more prevalent in classrooms as time marches forward.  Ideally, this will open up unprecedented access to interactive learning experiences to be implemented in classrooms. It’s common to think there are a lot of problems in youth education. I’d like to think Sokikom is part of the solution.