Outreach programs inspire young students to think creatively and enjoy math

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Young students who are interested in math don’t have to wait until college to sharpen their skills and broaden their knowledge. Through its extensive outreach programs, the Department of Mathematics at Iowa State University makes it easy for elementary, middle, and high school students to think creatively about math problems while having fun.

"The math department has several programs for young students who want to explore new ideas in math," Elgin Johnston, professor of mathematics, said. "Middle school and high school math curriculums are typically very algorithmic. Our programs focus on mathematical ways of thinking and give students an opportunity to explore exciting problems in an environment that encourages them to think freely and creatively about problems, some of which are still unresolved."

In addition to Johnston there are several additional faculty members, including Kristopher Lee and Steve Butler, as well as a number of graduate and undergraduate student volunteers who are involved in the outreach efforts.

Lee said he enjoys working with young students in these programs because "they don’t have a cynical side yet."

"Their thought process can be pretty out there," he said. "In these settings, they don’t stifle their creative side."

Butler agrees.

"Young people can be more interested in things," he said. "There is no grade pressure or pressure to be at these events. Young students can be passionate about math and simply enjoy it."

Here is a quick look at a few of the events the department hosts throughout the year:

High School Mathematics Competition An annual competition hosted on the Iowa State University campus for 10 years. The February event draws nearly 170 students from 20 high schools who work individually and in teams to solve complex math problems. The competition also brings accompanying coaches, teachers and parents to campus.

Mathematics Circle Beginning in 2000, Johnston hosted a weekly math club on Friday afternoons at Ames High School. After several years of growing interest and request from parents in other school districts, the Mathematics Circle was moved to the Iowa State University campus. The Circle now draws nearly 20 students from Ames, Des Moines, Newton, Mason City and other surrounding towns to work on various math activities once or twice a month on Saturdays from 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.

4-H Youth Conference Workshops During the annual three-day conference, hosted at Iowa State, Lee and the Department of Mathematics organizes a 90-minute workshop with interactive math activities for high school students. The workshops are well-attended, and challenge students to think creatively to solve interesting and fun mathematical problems that are appropriate for all skill levels.

OPPTAG (Office of Precollegiate Programs for Talented and Gifted) This spring event brings talented and gifted students in grades 6th through 8th from all over the state to Iowa State University to encourage students to continue to excel in several subjects. In mathematics, Lee develops hands-on tasks that appear to be easy but are underlined with interesting and nontrivial mathematics.

Find more information about these events and others by visiting the Department of Mathematics website.