Success Stories: Exploring Math with the Illinois Geometry Lab

Math classes are often taught through traditional lectures with a teacher at the front of the room giving problem sets to the class, and the way information is delivered in this context may not provide students with practical applications for the concepts they are learning. Led by Assistant Professor in Mathematics Jayadev Athreya, team members at the Illinois Geometry Lab (IGL) are providing teachers with alternative options for teaching math using visualization projects that incorporate a sense of exploration and play.

The IGL uses a community engagement model incorporating visualization activities that provide students the opportunity to discover the benefits of math through engaging in real world applications. Through class visits at local schools, graduate students, post-doctoral staff, and undergraduate students deliver in-class visualization projects created by faculty members in the IGL and the Mathematics Department. These projects include captivating videos and patterns that teach concepts of math as well as hands-on activities such as making models using a 3D printer. In addition to class visits at local schools, the IGL holds regular seminars on technological activities and shares classroom materials with local teachers.

Noel DeJarnette, former outreach manager of the IGL, describes an IGL project through which students build platonic solids using paper nets. “They take the models they create and answer a series of questions that help them to organize their exploration. This lesson has been adapted to teach about surface area and volume, algebra, and classifying objects.”

“One of the most important lessons that students take away from their interactions with the IGL is that math isn’t supposed to be scary or punishing,” explains Mr. DeJarnette. “Students are able to see that our scholars and professors struggle with problems they don’t know how to do.” Another key benefit identified by DeJarnette access to technologies that are not typically available to students and teachers.

Natalya Zielnicki, a middle school math teacher at Countryside School in Champaign, agrees. “Rarely do students get a chance to work with math professors to discover math formulas for themselves, and the volunteers at IGL have been very involved in making sure that the material comes alive for them while also meeting them at their middle school level.” Zielnicki plans to continue participating in the IGL activities in the future.

“The IGL program allows students to get a chance to make connections with some professors on campus, which is helpful for those who want to learn about careers in mathematics,” explains Zielnicki.

Future goals of the IGL include increasing the number of lab visits and visits to schools in the community and developing an “office hours” system where students, teacher and the local community can see and explore what the IGL is working on.