Do the Math: Texas Mathworks = Success
Excitement runs high as youngsters hunker over tables and stand in front of chalkboards. No math anxiety here; these kids are self-confident and animated as they tackle mathematical problems that would be intimidating to many adults.
These confident students are taking part in Texas Mathworks’ summer camp on the Texas State campus in San Marcos. For 19 years, Texas Mathworks summer campers have developed the skills to solve high-level math problems and learned that mathematics can be exciting and dynamic.
“They develop a mindset that they can tackle anything,” says Dr. Max Warshauer, founder and director of Texas Mathworks and an award-winning member of Texas State’s Department of Mathematics. “We give them a challenging environment where they’re not scared of exploring really hard problems. They learn that if they work hard, compute examples and look for patterns, they can discover some amazing connections.”
With Texas Mathworks, Warshauer has created a unique approach to math education that has attracted top students from across the nation and earned him professional recognition. In 2008 Warshauer was named a Regents Professor of The Texas State University System, one of only four Texas State professors so honored. He also received the 2008 Everette Swinney Faculty Senate Teaching Award and the 2008 Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching from Texas State University President Denise M. Trauth.
Taking Mathworks Statewide
Warshauer’s latest project is to make the Texas Mathworks curriculum available to public schools across the state. “We have a curriculum development project where we are taking what we do in the camp and extending it to a full school year curriculum for sixth and seventh graders up through Algebra I,” he says. Students who participate in Texas Mathworks’ summer camps show substantial gains in their math abilities, so a Mathworks curriculum in public schools could change the future of mathematics education.
“We are piloting our program with all of the sixth- and seventh-grade students in New Braunfels and with one middle school in McAllen,” Warshauer says. “We have 25 teachers and more than 2,000 students using our curriculum. The goal is to build a statewide network where the students are engaged in doing math at a high level.”
One common problem in American schools is the struggle many students have with algebra. Considered a gatekeeper course to higher mathematics, success in algebra is of critical importance. “Students who take math courses beyond Algebra II greatly improve their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree,” Warshauer says. “But for many students, especially students from low-income families and English language learners, passing Algebra I is a major hurdle.”
Making Math Work
Texas Mathworks’ unique approach to teaching children high-level math is based on a popular method of teaching music. “We’re trying to do for math what Suzuki did for music,” Warshauer says. “Suzuki observed that Japanese students could play music at a high level even when they’re young. He called it his mother tongue approach to teaching music — learning music the same way they learned to speak. You can apply his philosophy to anything, in particular to math. Allow students to explore problems in-depth, at a high level and in a supportive atmosphere.”
In 1990 Warshauer established the Honors Summer Math Camp, which brings together top high school students in the state and country. “The Honors Summer Math Camp develops our future leaders in math, science and technology,” he says. “We have students who are eighth graders up to 11th and 12th graders and even graduate students from Texas State who participate along with the summer math campers and go through learning number theory, which is the queen of mathematics. They learn how to do research.”
In 1996 he founded the Junior Summer Math Camp. “We’ve had first and second graders, but generally the students in junior camp are in third or fourth grade up through eighth grade,” he says. “The junior camp prepares students to do algebra and higher-level math. We provide a setting where the students are encouraged to explore problems in depth. This provides a foundation that they can build on.”
Texas Mathworks also conducts teacher-training programs for both in-service and pre-service teachers, who can then offer their own summer math camps as well as teach the Mathworks curriculum in their own classrooms.
In the Beginning
Warshauer’s love of mathematics began when he was a youngster growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina. “I played chess, and I played a Chinese game called Go,” he says. “I always liked the challenge of figuring things out.”
As a teenager, Warshauer attended a Young Scholars program at Ohio State University (the Ross Summer Program) for three summers, where he reveled in studying number theory and abstract algebra. “I always wanted to develop a similar program,” he says. “After I’d been at Texas State a number of years it looked like that would be a promising thing to do.”
Warshauer earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago, where he met another math student named Hiroko Kawaguchi. Max and Hiroko married, and both earned their master’s degrees at Louisiana State University. Max went on to earn his doctorate while Hiroko took time off to raise their four children, one of whom is currently working on her doctorate in mathematics at her parents’ alma mater. Max and Hiroko Warshauer have collaborated on a number of projects at Texas State, where she is a lecturer in mathematics and pursuing her doctorate in math education at the University of Texas.
Looking Toward the Future
In the Texas public schools where the Mathworks curriculum has been implemented on an experimental basis, the feedback from teachers has been enthusiastic. Warshauer’s brainchild is poised to make a breakthrough in the way students across the state and beyond see math.
And nearly 20 years after establishing Texas Mathworks, Warshauer maintains the enthusiasm he felt when he first dreamed of establishing such a program. “I’ve learned that kids can do a tremendous number of creative things when they’re very young if they’re given the opportunity and the expectation,” he says. “We’re sending out future leaders for our state and country, students with the background to solve hard problems and the confidence that they can make progress even on new and unsolved problems. They are ready to make the advances that we will need to be competitive in the 21st century.”