Rachel Pollinger’s task this summer is to create math challenges for middle and high school students. But not typical math problems, such as finding the square root of 121 and dividing it by the square root of 25. Instead, the problems she’s inventing involve creativity, storytelling, and new media.
Funded by a grant from Bowdoin’s Gibbons Summer Research Program, Pollinger ’15 is working for a company based in Freeport, Maine called Meridian Stories. The organization, founded by a Sesame Street producer, is developing innovative curricula for students “that focus on 21st-century skills, combined with storytelling,” Pollinger said.
Brett Pierce, Meridian Stories’ founder, says kids are using computers, digital cameras, and audio technology to make content for social media sites; they’re just not using it much in school. “How do you take all that energy that they’re putting into furthering their identities and their selves online, in positive and non-positive ways, and redirect it to curriculum goals?” Pierce said. “Is anyone asking them on a consistent basis to create media? This is not that unpalatable. Kids love creating media.”
Meridian Stories last year introduced its curricular challenges to 13 schools and 200 students in Maine. Two Bowdoin students, Sasha Davis ’13 and Sarah Hirschfeld ‘13, worked with Pierce to develop challenges for language arts and history. Their most popular assignment was to create a three-minute documentary about a local landmark from the point of view of the landmark.
This summer, Pierce again turned to Bowdoin for help with developing math challenges. Pollinger says she was approached by Jennifer Taback, associate professor of mathematics, to see if she was interested in the position.
“It’s a blend of everything I like, because it has math, education, and storytelling,” Pollinger said. “I was very involved in theater and dance, and still am, and I took a computer science course last year and really liked it. So I’m hoping to do more with technology.” As a rising sophomore, she hasn’t yet declared a major, but says she wants to study math and education.
So this summer, Pollinger and her faculty mentor, Eric Gaze, director of Bowdoin’s Quantitative Reasoning Program, are developing six or so math challenges that incorporate the subjects teachers are required to teach, such as geometry, statistics, and exponential growth.
Gaze says one of the challenges he and Pollinger are batting around is to have students stage an interview with a number, say the square root of two. Students would use video, audio, or storyboards to make up a short story in which the number is interviewed by a reporter or talk show host. “A big part of what Brett wants is students using new media technologies to engage them in the curriculum. Rather than teaching them about the Pythagorean theorem on the chalkboard, the students would be engaged with the theorem,” Gaze said. “They’d have to understand how it relates to the square root of two.”
Gaze, who works with the Mathematical Association of America to devise national math curricula that’s relevant to students, said, “This project feeds into that initiative; we need to create a curriculum that is more meaningful. These challenges are neat because they are fun and engaging, and they also use new media and new technology.”
John A. Gibbons, Jr. ’64 established the Gibbons Summer Research Program to enable students to work with faculty on projects that use technology to explore interdisciplinary areas and to develop fresh approaches to the study of complex problems. The competitive grant program is just one among many that Bowdoin College offers to qualified students to support summertime research, projects, or internships.