Magazine article Newsweek

A Difficult Formula: Math = Fun: At Williams College, Even Calculus Is Cool

Magazine article Newsweek

A Difficult Formula: Math = Fun: At Williams College, Even Calculus Is Cool

Article excerpt

At most colleges there's only one thing less popular than a calculus class: a 9 a.m. calculus class. But on a recent morning at Williams College, all 50-odd seats are filled as Edward Berger teaches differentiation. Not even Berger, a former stand-up comic, can turn 8x3+2x into fodder for Jay Leno. But he can try. As students work problems, their professor clambers between rows, offering encouragement. When the class seems particularly hung up--doesn't anyone remember the quadratic formula?--he coaxes a woman into singing the formula, to the tune of "Jingle Bells" (hum along: "Negative B/plus or minus the/square root of B squared...").

This is math? It is at Williams College. "We do whatever it takes to get the biggest audience possible," says department chair Colin Adams. And it's working. Next week the elite liberal-arts school in Massachusetts will graduate a record 42 students with bachelor's degrees in mathematics. That's 8 percent of the class--at a time when just 1 or 2 percent of students nationally choose math as a major (chart). Even at Williams math can't compete with the hottest major, economics. But the subject has earned a respectable buzz, which may offer larger lessons for educators clinched in a national debate over math. The issues are complex but boil down to one thing: how to excite kids about math? At Williams the answer is fun, imaginative teaching.

In the '70s and '80s, Williams's math department was like that of most schools: arrogant and uncompromising. "The sense was that math ought to be hard, and only the best and brightest students should be taking it," says Olga Beaver, who joined the faculty in 1979. So tough introductory classes acted as filters, causing many students to find a different major. But in the late '80s a new generation of faculty arrived and made intro classes less intimidating. They developed courses that would appeal to nonmajors, like math for finance and math for medicine. …

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