Learning mathematics from detectives, starlets, cowboys

THE case: a lost baseball. The scene: a slightly scruffy neighborhood diamond. The suspect: the billboard in left field, toward which the ball was last seen heading. The cool, no-nonsense police detective looks at her poker-faced partner. ``That's it -- the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.'' They jump in their cruiser and head for a house near the billboard. An elderly woman comes to the screen door. ``Mind if we check out the porch, Ma'am?'' In the background: ``dum dee dum-dum, duuuum!''

So progresses another espisode of ``Mathnet,'' a takeoff on the old Jack Webb ``Dragnet'' TV show and a regular feature of a new show designed to teach 8- to 12-year-olds some basics of mathematics -- in the above instance, a bit of geometry. The series comes from the Children's Television Workshop (CTW), which makes it heir to the successes of PBS's ``Sesame Street,'' ``The Electric Company,'' and ``3-2-1 Contact.''

Ideas for a show devoted to math have been simmering for a decade or more, stirred regularly by studies showing a decline in children's math abilities, according to David Connell, executive producer for this latest CTW undertaking. At the end of 1982, he sat down with Joan Ganz Cooney, president of the company, and said ``It's time to do a mathematics series.'' She agreed, and thus began a long process that involved talking with educators and rounding up government and private support for the project.

Over the past months, Mr. Connell and his team have put together a number of pilot programs. Regular production of 75 installments has just begun, and broadcasts by local public television stations are scheduled to begin next January. The working title of the show -- it may yet change -- is ``Square One TV.''

The fundamental goal of the project, says Connell, is to change ``kids' attitudes, their motivation towards mathematics.'' Too often, in his view, math is taught as ``just arithmetic -- Johnny has two apples, Judy has three.'' The show will try to dramatize the problem-solving aspect of mathematics, particularly its relevance to a multitude of everyday conundrums.

One sketch shows a patron buying popcorn at the movies. He wants a box ``twice as large, twice as long, and twice as deep'' as the size he's been offered. When the price is eight times larger, his jaw drops. The obliging popcorn boy gives a simple explanation of how volume multiplies as dimensions expand.

Another sequence follows the consternation of a slightly dizzy starlet filming a food commercial. The product has 40 percent fewer calories than its competitors, but the director continually shouts ``cut!'' and bursts onto the stage, pleading with the writer for a better way to say ``40 percent'': ``Bernie, what other choices do I have?'' Retakes run the gamut: ``four-tenths,'' ``.4,'' ``two-fifths.'' Giggling viewers, hopefully, are left with a quick lesson in the vocabulary of fractions.

Connell points out that the show capitalizes on children's near universal familiarity with television. Detective programs, game shows, commercials -- all are gleefully parodied. Kids from every corner of the country, and every economic stratum, know and respond to the images, he says, noting that test viewing by young audiences in New York, Chicago, Boston, Denver, and rural North Carolina has tended to confirm this.

It doesn't even seem to matter too much when a parody goes over young heads. ``Dragnet,'' for example, may be familiar to very few fourth- through sixth-graders, but the ``Mathnet'' takeoff still scored high with these children, says Connell. The reason, he suggests, is the strong element of plot in the detective segments, which operates independently of the parody.

CTW has plans to work with classroom instructors across the United States through a teacher's guide. Eventually, says Connell, he'd like to see an extensive guide that would cross-index material in the show with the major math textbooks used to teach children in the upper elementary grades.

The panel of educators who advise Connell and his staff have played a key role in refining the show and sharpening its focus, he says. He's also worked closely with a three-person ``content department'' that closely checks all scripts for accuracy in the math concepts being dealt with -- a particularly tricky aspect of this show, as compared to earlier CTW productions dealing primarily with language and reading, for instance.

Every once in a while, adds Connell with a smile, ``I have to remind the advisers that it's a TV show -- first you have to get their attention.''

With the quick pace, bouncy humor, and clever acting that have characterized past CTW offerings, the chances are good this show will indeed attract an avid young audience. Whether it will in fact accomplish its admirable goal -- what Connell calls a ``mid-course correction'' in the attitudes of many young Americans toward mathematics -- that's a bit more difficult to predict.

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