Utilizing Math to Inspire Behavioral Change

By Peace Corps Liberia
May 18, 2017

“My goal in the classroom is to erase the mindset that math is hard,” shared Peace Corps Response Volunteer Lakshmi.

With this goal in mind she is providing her students with the tools they need to create new ways of teaching, and to ensure their future students will be excited to learn math. Lakshmi’s classroom isn’t just about math, as she is using various projects to showcase how math impacts her students’ daily lives.

Lakshmi trains a class of 25 aspiring junior high mathematics educators for one hour, three times a week. Her interaction with her students is amicable; however, she started off with a challenge as many of her students didn’t initially choose to become math teachers. In an effort to reform the Liberian education system, the Ministry of Education has been conducting a national search to find the best candidates for two priorities areas; math and science. In doing so, teachers in training are being placed in areas they are needed the most, and not always the subject area they are most interested in teaching.

It’s 12:45 p.m., and Lakshmi’s students ease into their seats wiping off sweat created from the blazing heat outside. The classroom’s walls are plastered with student-made posters of mathematics quotes, math projects, formulas and figures of geometry shapes, an ambiance and decor conducive for learning. Class commenced, and Lakshmi explained the criteria that will be used to judge the toothpick bridge project they have been working on for a week.

On the first day of the project, students were provided handouts with the project requirements, process, and codes to build a toothpick bridge. The objective of the project was to build a bridge using nothing but school glue and toothpicks. The students divided themselves in to small working groups and formed their construction companies. With Lakshmi assuming the role of storekeeper, each company was given a certain amount of money to construct a strong bridge. The codes required that each toothpick bridge had to be a certain height, so a boat can pass through, and the width of the bridges has to be wide enough for a car to travel across.

A student helps to weigh the bridge.

Students went through a procurement process, learned how to write checks, balanced their project budgets, and made blue prints of the bridge they wanted to construct. Bid notices were sent out, banks were established, stores were developed, and careers were acquired. Like a normal bidding process, groups submitted their bids, acquired loans if necessary, procured materials, hired expert staff, and got to work constructing their bridges.

1:15 p.m. and the judging begins. Who had built the strongest bridge following the specifications outlined prior to the planning process? Lakshmi asked students to put two level chairs creating an even surface. She pulled out a few rocks from a sack; she explained to the students, “I do not have a scale, so I went to a local shopkeeper, and asked him to weigh these rocks to ensure accuracy.” Each rock was labeled with the pounds it weighed. Once things were set up, the excitement in the classroom could not be contained!

Each group was called; weight was added to each bridge until it collapsed. Six teams and six bridges were put through the test. One group was disqualified as they did not follow the required specifications. The winning bridge was the one that could hold the highest weight and met the required specifications.

Students excitely await their bridges
The students await their results.

Students expressed how the bridge building project was not the only project they were excited about, saying that Lakshmi has a unique way of using math projects to teach the students about life. In the process of working on these various projects her students learned how to manage their own classrooms, create low cost projects for students by using local materials and human resources, and connecting lesson plans to daily experiences.

One of Lakshmi’s students, Stever S. Johons, shared a story he wrote after being inspired by Lakshmi’s different methods of teaching math. Utilizing his creative writing skills he wrote a math story titled “Do you want to know me?”

Please stop to know me better. It is important for me to be known. My name is mathematical operations. I live in all mathematics books, and sometimes, I am found in other books too. I have four living children, and they are addition (+), subtraction (-), multiplication (x), and division (/). My children and I are very popular all over the world. We are used in important places. Such as: 1) Schools, 2) homes, 3) construction, 4) business, etc.To conclude, my children and I have made the concept of learning mathematics easy. Thus we are found everywhere, especially in your daily lives. Please feel free to make use of us, as we can be found in your math and science book that you do not like to use.

There are several factors that deter school children in Liberia from engaging in math, such as gender inequality, lack of encouragement from friends and family, and the age old myth that math is hard. Given these obstacles teachers face to get students excited about math in the classroom, Lakshmi has worked hard to encourage her students, the future math educators of Liberia, to start thinking of new, fun and innovative ways of encouraging others to get excited about math before they graduate. She has inspired a new generation of math teachers, which will benefit Liberia for years to come.

winning bridge
The Winning Bridge
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