Square Root Day takes the (carrot) cake

Finding puns and fun in mathematics are just some of the ways that math and science teachers are shaking things up in the classroom.

Today is Square Root Day (4/4/16), a holiday that comes around only when calendar matches the square root equivalent (in this case, 4 times 4 equals 16). Similar to serving up pie on annual Pi Day (3/14) some math classes may have taken the opportunity to liven up lessons today by digging into carrot cake or other "root" vegetable-based delicacies.   

Making mathematics more fun to the average student has challenged teachers throughout the decades. Many may never come close to the results that Jaime Escalante, the exceptional math teacher made famous in the 1988 film, "Stand and Deliver," achieved with his standout calculus students in troubled East Los Angeles, Calif. But through support networks and innovation in the classroom, math and science teachers are figuring out how to help students discover the rewards of learning.

For example, Math For America (MFA) offers 1,000 fellowships annually in New York City. These fellowships keep exceptional math and science teachers in the classroom while giving them a $15,000 stipend and engaging them in a teacher-to-teacher continuing education program, which involves being mentored by other exceptional educators.

In a YouTube video MFA asked students and teachers to answer: "What makes a good math teacher?" Answers ranged from "A teacher who pushes you to understand the question but doesn’t give you the answer," to "A good math teacher should definitely have a lot of patience." 

One of those teachers is Molly Shabica, a biology teacher at New York's South Bronx Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School.

"[She] took lots of kids who come from homeless shelters, free lunch programs, and other places and she got them interested in studying a certain kind of bacteria, says John Ewing, MFA president. "Then she somehow got the money for microscopes and hooked these kids up with university researchers. She ended up getting these kids doing what, basically, is research," he says. "And you find that kind of story being replicated dozens and dozens of times in both math and science."

The secret to making math exciting and understandable, Mr. Ewing says, boils down to this formula: "Know and love mathematics. Know and love the craft of teaching. Know your students and love working with them."

He adds that what is vitally important in an urban environment is that "you have to know where they're [students are] coming from and what their needs are. You get better at that with experience."

Another experienced teacher who has gotten on the national media radar for his ability to engage students in math is Ron Clark of The Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta known for his hip-hop dance moves and classroom tactics.

And then there is Justin Solonynka, a 7th and 8th grade teacher at Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, Penn., who has given a presentation on big numbers at a TED event called TEDxAFS.

Mr. Solonynka, a teacher for 20 years, is also known for videos that put puzzlemakers to the test by claiming there are "infinite ways" a 16-piece puzzle may be to be put together.

In a phone interview, Solonyka explains that good teaching begins with being genuinely excited about mathematics yourself and that "a good teacher has to be constantly willing to change what you're doing, not feeling in any way 'I've got it down.' "

According to Solonynka teachers who are simply telling students "Here's the formula, memorize it and here’s how you plug in the numbers" is missing the opportunity to help people to learn to communicate about the "whys" of math.

"It's about understanding how the formula's derived and why we're doing it," he says. "It relates to how we live as adults in this world. It's about being able to explain your thinking and being able to explain, 'This is where this came from.' That’s when math becomes really exciting."

And formulas can be festive, too, when it comes to looking for a reason to celebrate. The last Square Root Day was March 3, 2009 (3/3/09) and it won't come around again until May 5, 2025 (5/5/25). So break out the root puns and beet borscht while you can. 

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