Math should be fun. The trick is to figure out how to make it so for each individual student. Every child has specific interests that spark his or her intellectual curiosity, and those interests are the key.

monalisaIf you read my blog regularly, you know that I tutor a home-schooled nine-year-old boy who has high-functioning autism. Tom does well with math board games, tactile learning aids such as the Fractions Tower, and any math activity that involves movement. As long as I change up the lesson plan every week, I can hold his attention for at least 50 minutes, and on a good day we can make it to an hour. He is making great progress, but I’m always looking for ways to amp up his math learning experience.

Tom is one of the world’s youngest da Vinci fans, but before I began working with him his admiration was limited to Leonardo’s art. He didn’t know that the Renaissance artist was also a talented inventor. The day we constructed a da Vinci parachute out of paper (we used it to practice measuring with a ruler and computing perimeter and area), Tom got really excited. Around that time, I also brought him an outdoor thermometer, a clipboard, and a datasheet on which to record the temperature over a one-month period. The next week he asked me who had invented the thermometer. I told him it was Galileo. His next question was, “What else did he invent?” I came up with “a better telescope” and I promised to research his other works. Then came the holiday break and we skipped a session. During that time, I went with a friend to our favorite thrift store and found myself digging through bin after bin of used children’s books. There were some great finds, including a Lego sticker book, but the real treasure was an old edition of Barron’s Science Wizardry for Kids … only 50 cents! That’s when it dawned on me—I should incorporate a science activity into every tutoring session with Tom. It would spark his natural curiosity and give him more opportunities to see math in action.

sundialI wanted to run the idea by his mom, but I figured she’d like it, so I showed up for this week’s session with a homemade sundial in my book bag. She immediately gave the green light, and at the end of the hour, we did our regular “time” activity … Tom told me the time from a digital clock and he set the hands on a cardboard clock to match … then we headed outside. I showed him how to find north with the compass. Then we aligned the sundial with a north-south line and I explained how the shadow on the sundial indicates the time of day based the position of the sun. (Thank goodness it was sunny!) Tom was so excited that he couldn’t wait to show his parents the compass and sundial.

That is how learning should be—exciting—for both the student and the teacher, and every student learns better when the lesson involves his own interests. I can’t wait to peruse the Science Wizardry book for next week’s science lesson, and soon we’ll have enough temperature data to start creating graphs. My new mantra is “Math and science can be fun!”

Post note: It turns out that Galileo did not invent the first thermometer, but he did create one that was much more accurate than earlier designs. His other inventions include a hydrostatic balance and the first pendulum clock, in addition to the improved telescope design.

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