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Hands-on learning
Hands-on learning
Sebastian Krass

GIESSEN — It will make you crazy — the pyramid simply does not want to fit into the glass cube. Melih turns it again, this time just a little, and then sticks it in the open side of the cube again. No luck. He tries more forcefully, pressing down on the pyramid. But the fifth grader’s strength is not enough to break a law of mathematics.

Just as Melih is about to give up, it works. He’d turned the pyramid exactly right, so that its edge aligned with the cube’s diagonal, and it slipped right in. Instead of frustration, he now sports a satisfied grin. “It was pretty hard to twist it right,” the boy says.

The theme of Melih’s class visit to the interactive Math Museum in the central German city of Giessen is “shapes.” It’s a place to “experience math without pressure or fear.” That’s the way it’s described by Albrecht Beutelspacher, a mathematics professor at the University of Giessen and the museum’s founder.

The Aha! approach

There are no equations to solve here, just little experiments. “You can’t solve them with patience or luck. There is a little trick,” Beutelspacher explains. “And when you figure it out, there is an aha moment.” Those moments hold the potential to bring the visitor closer to math, and the museum has indeed won several prizes for its methods since opening in 2002. It attracts about 150,000 visitors per year — around 400 per day.

“Pressure” and “fear” are two words that many schoolchildren associate with math.
And according to Stuttgart math professor Christian Hesse, it is also the most loathed subject in school.

German parents spend around 1.5 billion euros per year for tutoring, estimates the After School Help Schools professional group. “More than half of that is for math,” says Cornelia Sussieck, the group’s chairwoman. That proportion has been steady for years, so there must be something wrong with the way math is taught in German schools. But are people aware of the problem, and do they have the will to change it?

Critics say that traditional math classes concentrate excessively on exercises and equations. Kids often don’t understand what the point is. They don’t have the freedom to experience math on their own, with teachers to help them understand the concepts.

“There is math hidden in every church tower and traffic sign,” Beutelspacher says.

A thing of joy?

At the entrance of the math museum, there’s a red carpet with the words Math Makes You Happy” written on it. As one ninth grade girl sees that, she touches her head in disbelief. It would be like writing, “Vacuuming makes you happy.”

Zita Sprengard is the girl’s math teacher and knows that her subject has a problem that even beautiful concepts and museums can’t solve: Math is part of school, and school takes time away from the rest of life. At least that’s how many young people think, and it’s the framework that teachers have to work with, especially when it comes to math. “We are trying different, better ways to teach things,” Sprengard says.

Last year, she taught her students how to calculate volume. “We gave the students the task of designing and building packaging for one liter of fruit juice, as if they were in a design studio. And they had to show how they had done the calculations. There were some cool things that came out of it, and at the end we had an exhibition at the school.”

This year, she is working on the theme of variables, and she started the year with a trip to the Math Museum to try to find a good approach. There’s a game that might help: It’s a graph that students control by standing on numbers on the floor. The goal is to copy another graph that is constantly changing. The students jump back and forth from the numbers on the ground, with the aim of understanding independent and dependent variables in an equation.

Two hours later the visit is over, and back in school the teachers will see and test if anything has stuck. Sprengard has resolved to make the most of the Math Museum experience during her lessons.

Amazement isn’t enough

Kristina Reiss, a math teacher trainer at the Technical University in Munich, appreciates the Math Museum in Giessen, but says a single visit per year isn’t enough to sustain student interest in the subject. “Amazement won’t make anyone smarter,” she says.

Beutelspacher says that math teachers have a particularly tricky task. “Math is the subject in which there is the clearest difference between right and wrong. That’s good, but it’s also merciless,” notes the museum founder. “There is a danger that the teacher will become the Lord of Right and Wrong. Power creates fear.”

The discussion about how to rid math of its bad reputation has been going on for a long time. Beutelspacher and Reiss both stress that things are much better now than they were 20 years ago. Reiss says that in the early grades math instruction is going quite well. “The problems begin in puberty. The math gets more abstract then, and at the same time the kids are going through a difficult personal phase,” she says.

Critics say that the subject should move closer to kids’ lives, that more time should be spent on math and that higher-level math should be left out of schools. That’s a sticky question, though. In theory, every high school graduate should be able to study any subject at university, but leaders of engineering schools are already complaining that new students lack a solid math foundation. And engineering is not the only subject that requires higher math.

Reiss says that there have already been things thrown out of the curriculum. “We have to prepare students for the time after graduation and also be mindful of the practical applications,” she says. “We have to find the balance.”

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