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MathFest 2019: Learning Educational Trends … and Picking up Some Card Tricks

The annual conference brings together mathematicians from all disciplines to discuss current trends … and debate the specific angle of the perfect dab.

At the end of July, I traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, and joined around 1,500 others to attend MathFest, an annual conference hosted by the Mathematics Association of America (MAA). The event, which has been running since 2001, brings together educators, students, government employees, and people from the tech industry to talk about their favorite subject: math!

During the 4-day conference, I attended presentations, panel discussions, and special events in the MAA Pavilion to learn more about current trends in mathematics education as well as what’s in store for the future.

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Here are my 3 key takeaways from MathFest 2019

1. Educators are moving away from lecture-only math instruction

A major trend I noticed at the conference was the focus on active learning, inquiry-based learning, and other pedagogies beyond the traditional lecture-style instruction. Many math educators are clearly looking for new ways to expand their teaching tool kit to include more hands-on, experiential learning opportunities.

During one session focused on inquiry-based learning, educators who teach both math majors and non–math majors shared some of their approaches in the classroom. The presenters all teach a variety of math courses; some have even developed classes unique to their university. Despite these differences, I was most surprised to hear in the discussion following each presentation how applicable these ideas were to all types of courses. More often than not, a member of the audience would excitedly state, “I love this idea and want to use it in my own class!” before posing questions to the presenter.

Of course, those who chose to attend these sessions are likely to be excited by the innovative ideas that were shared. The bigger question is: How do mathematics educators in general feel about these “nontraditional” classroom activities? Jump to the session with Dr. Sandra Laursen from the University of Colorado, Boulder, who shared some of her research findings about active learning in mathematics instruction. Laursen surveyed STEM classes across the country and found that mathematics is relatively ahead of the curve in terms of moving away from lecture instruction only. However, she notes that we still have more to learn about why this might be the case, and whether this trend will continue.

2. Educators need more than a one-off session for professional development support

Another major discussion point was around professional development sessions, and how the way they’re currently offered to educators doesn’t effectively support individual growth or promote the desired changes in instruction.

Not all but most professional development workshops are offered as single sessions, with the expectation that attendees will pick up enough in that time to implement their new learnings. Many sessions at MathFest focused on how such expectations are not realistic—meaning that a single session isn’t enough to help educators absorb and adopt new teaching methods. Presenters encouraged higher education institutions to implement practices that allow for continued learning and support for faculty following a professional development session.

For example, Jack Bookman (Duke University) and Jeneva Clark (University of Tennessee) presented on a program they created through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. It brought together more than 40 mathematics instructors who were seeking to change their instruction by using inquiry-oriented, task-based curricular materials. Participants worked in groups for about 4 months to develop workshops on different instructional methods—and then provided continuous support to one another throughout the semester as they each went back to their classes to implement some of these new methods. Their feedback suggested that this continued support helped them more effectively implement at least one new teaching method.

3. Math really is fun!

While many who attended the conference likely came because of their research and teaching interests, the MathFest organizers were determined to remind us that math isn’t just about numbers, theories, and proofs. It’s also a lot of fun!

While the Exhibition Hall featured publishers, math software developers, and other organizations deeply embedded in the mathematics field, it was also the location of the MAA Pavilion—center stage for (in my humble opinion!) some of the most engaging math activities at the conference. These sessions were intended to appeal to all audiences, and the producers encouraged audience participation.

The opener was “Take a Chance to Dance,” in which participants’ dance moves were dictated by chance through a role of the dice. Friday afternoon, the focus was on sports analytics, and participants became engrossed in a heated debate about the specific angle of the perfect dab. (There is still no consensus on this!) Closing out the Pavilion fun was a Math & Magic show filled with jaw-dropping mental calculations, card tricks, and even a demo from a world champion Rubik’s Cube Speedcuber!

The events were a great reminder that math is more than calculations and solving for x. The Pavilion was a space where educators, students, children, and even a Course Hero team member could all be actively engaged in the excitement, and wonder, of math.

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