Math. Math. Math.
The Vinton County Middle School students who attended the mathematics session on campus on May 18 just couldn’t stop talking about it. For one thing, they knew the international math salute. But they also knew the secret to a math “magic trick” that they immediately played on students who had attended other academic sessions.
At the center of their fun was Dr. Robert Klein, Associate Professor of Mathematics. It’s no wonder he was just named a recipient of the Ohio University’s Presidential Teacher Award. Tresa Randall, Associate Professor of Dance, was the other recipient for the year 2015. Both will be presented the award at a ceremony during Fall 2015.
Klein started his session with the magic math moment. He asked students to multiply two four-digit numbers together, multiply that answer by a five-digit number, and then read back to him all but one of the digits in the answer. He then named the number they had left out.
Then he stood on a chair, so everyone could see, and showed the students the international math salute. And he was just getting warmed up.
“He was just really fun, he kept it interesting,” said seventh-grader Sydney Brown. “He jumped around” and kept it moving.
Perpetual motion might describe Klein’s passion and energy for math.
In the spring, he took a history of mathematics class to the archives section of Alden Library to reach out and touch the history they were learning in some of the incredible mathematics holdings in Alden’s Special Collections. The ancient texts of Euclid’s Elements on brittle paper and calfskin vellum showed formal proofs for plane geometry and three-dimensional geometry, along with what today’s students recognize as algebra and number theory.
Klein arranged the special viewing with Alden Library’s Miriam Intrator for a class of students most of whom are preparing to become mathematics teachers.
Klein’s impact on math education can be felt across the state of Ohio, and on a much wider scale.
Spreading Math ‘Secrets’
Klein took another math “secret” and gave it life in Athens–and much further.
In the former Soviet Union, students who wanted to learn more—at the time the Soviets were dictating what was allowable in terms of research and studies—gathered in kitchens and living rooms in small groups to do…math.
“Math circles,” as they were known, were “something that people could do in apartments, in communities and small groups without lab equipment. So mathematicians got students together in their houses and apartments and engaged them in interesting mathematical problems in defiance of whatever the regime might say you can or cannot do. It really was an act of democracy, of subversion,” Klein says.
In Athens, he co-facilitates The Math League, a math circle for kids aged 11-15. This group is co-led by mathematics graduate students Javier Ronquillo Rivera and Rebin Muhammad and meets every other Saturday in the community center. Between 12 and 20 kids show up on those Saturdays to discover the joy of doing interesting and fun mathematics.
Klein also started the SouthEast Ohio Math Teachers Circle, and math circles continue to ripple–with the Navajo Nation in the Southwest. Read “Can You Solve the Navajo Sheep Problem?” and “From Navajo Nation to Capitol Hill: Klein Inspires, Empowers, Advocates.” A documentary film about the Navajo Nation Math Circle Project is being released in January (http://zalafilms.com/navajo/trailer). This summer, Klein will travel with Ronquillo Rivera to Guatemala to facilitate sessions at the International Education for Life Festival where he hopes to establish the first Math Teachers’ Circle outside of the United States.
Klein is also a strong advocate for math education in rural areas and the Appalachian region. Visiting Professor and Ohio University alum Dr. Daniel Showalter,” Klein co-authored the biennial Why Rural Matters 2013-14 report from the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust. Read “Many States Fail To Improve Rural Education.” They were invited by Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Representative G.T. Thompson (R-PA) in July 2014 to present a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C. on the report. They are currently working on the 2015-16 report.
According to Klein, “I hope the relationship I have with students is structured according to seriousness of purpose yet if it isn’t fun, then I have to ask, why not?”