Simplifying Problems with Recreational Math
Marie Brodsky found her passion for mathematics by going in circles—math circles. Originating in Eastern Europe, math circles spread to the United States in the 1990s, where they found Brodsky in 2006. From the age of 4, Brodsky participated in these extracurricular math learning experiences and her love for problem-solving grew from there.
By the time Brodsky was 11 years old, she was leading a math circle of her own—teaching younger children foundational math and problem-solving skills through something she calls “recreational math.”
“I still can’t believe that all these parents allowed this little girl with pigtails and polka-dot clothing to teach their kids,” the sophomore math major at the University of Maryland recalled with a laugh. “But I think they recognized that their kids would have a lot more fun learning from someone just slightly older than them rather than a serious adult.”
Brodsky came to UMD as a Banneker/Key Scholar in the Honors College’s Advanced Cybersecurity Experience for Students (ACES) program—and she was looking for an opportunity to continue teaching when she found the Student Initiated Courses (STICs) program.
STICs help students design, develop and teach their own courses under the guidance of faculty advisors. This year, Brodsky is the executive director of the program, and this fall she taught MATH299Y: Teaching Math to a Young Audience. The course curriculum is inspired by Brodsky’s experience tutoring through her platform Conversations in Math during the pandemic, when she taught math virtually to dozens of children around the world.
“I took a lot of notes on what worked well and how to explain certain resources I’d found on all those topics,” Brodsky said. “To put together the curriculum for MATH299Y, I went through my lesson notes, picked out the topics I thought were most interesting and put them in logical order for the semester.”
MATH299Y makes connections between seemingly disparate mathematical concepts and introduces topics typically not covered in elementary school curricula—helping college students take advanced topics and simplify them to understand their core ideas. Brodsky anticipates that students will come away with a stronger foundation in math and greater confidence in their abilities to break down these concepts for a young audience.
“I want my students to feel why math can be exciting,” Brodsky said. “Then, when they go on to teach, they remember that these connections between concepts are exciting and see how they can frame them in a more interesting way.”
In each class, Brodsky diagrams problems on the blackboard and guides her students to solutions. She poses math problems geared toward children ages 4, 8 and 12 and asks her students how they would break them down for younger audiences. Brodsky frequently asks, “But why?” to help the students dig deeper into these core mathematical concepts.
For example—a frog is jumping back and forth over a stream. It jumped 101 times. Which side did it end up on?
“It’s not obvious. What’s your first reaction?” Brodsky said to her class. “In the end, it’s equivalent to having done one jump. If you are teaching 4-year-olds, I would totally act this out by having students jump back and forth in the classroom.”
“I think Marie has done an excellent job understanding what skill sets the various age groups have and how her examples apply or don't apply to those various age groups,” said Mathematics Principal Lecturer Justin Wyss-Gallifent, Brodsky’s faculty advisor for MATH299Y. “In teaching, knowing how to structure the material is probably more than half the battle. In Marie’s case, she is not just teaching problems but also understanding how those age groups would approach the problems.”
Wyss-Gallifent explained that learning to break down problems for others and developing public speaking skills are just some of the benefits of teaching a STIC. Additionally, undergraduate students connect with content differently when another undergrad is teaching the course.
“It’s definitely different having an undergrad student in a professor role. Marie really knows what she’s doing,” said Shiraz Robinson, a plant biology major and one of Brodsky’s students. “This class has given me a different way to look at numbers and it’s helping me understand math better. You can scale these ideas to very deep ideas that require all your computational power.”
In her role as executive director of the STICs program, Brodsky wants to give the students teaching STICs creative license to teach the topics they’re passionate about while also holding them accountable as teachers.
“We’re planning to do workshops where the facilitators give each other feedback on their course planning, content, syllabus, maybe teach a little bit to each other and get feedback,” Brodsky said. “Most people who are teaching a STIC are really committed to this idea of students teaching courses, so we want to support them and give them even more resources to become even better teachers.”
When it comes to her future career plans, Brodsky is still figuring that out. For now, she’s interested in learning more about education policy and curriculum development. One thing she’s certain of: She wants to make education better.
“I want to help improve the education system,” Brodsky said, “and revamp how teachers get incentivized to teach in better ways, how they decide the material and curriculum, and how to make the experience better on a larger scale.”
Written by Katie Bemb