Algebra for the IPad Generation
Feb 24, 2012
For many students, algebra inspires apprehension and dread. Today, students are increasingly dependent on tools, such as iPads and even their phones, that can do the work of algebra for them. This makes the job of a teacher trying to convey algebra's importance difficult. Yet there are still ways to make algebra relevant, interesting and fun.
The Problem with Algebra
Algebra has its fair share of young critics. When students first encounter algebra, with its x's and y's, they may find it incomprehensible and foreign. Many students argue that the word problems with which they are presented are unnecessarily obtuse.
For example, a student may be asked to determine how many boys and girls there in a class of 25 students, given that there are five more girls than boys. Of course, in order to formulate this problem, the person asking the question must already know the answer. A reluctant algebra student might protest that the question is merely an excessively elaborate way of arriving at information that's already known.
Algebra as a Puzzle
One key to making algebra compelling is to present it as a puzzle to be solved. Algebra is less about mathematics and more about logic. Treating the above problem, and others like it, like puzzles can helpt a student overcome the psychological barrier that often arises with a challenging math problem.
It's important that students who struggle with algebra avoid getting bogged down with focusing on finding the answer. It's true that many algebra textbooks are full of seemingly arbitrary questions with little relevance. Yet this isn't much different than trivia games, jigsaw puzzles or video games. While there's a thrill in completing a jigsaw puzzle, most of the joy in the activity is the process of figuring it out. Algebra is no different.
Another method for helping students connect with algebra is to explore its origins. Students with an interest in history and culture may appreciate the story of how algebra came to exist. Algebra's earliest origins date back to the ancient Egyptians, who solved algebraic problems almost entirely with words. The Babylonians subsequently developed a more sophisticated approach, though it was still hindered by a lack of symbols.
It was the Arabs in the 9th century, who then controlled significant portions of modern day Asia, Africa and Europe, who are largely considered to be the first masters of algebra. They combined the rhetorical algebra of the Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks with the Hindus' number system. They gave algebra its name, though the innovations would continue for hundreds more years.
Algebra for Cash
There will be students who are uninterested in algebra as a puzzle or algebra's fascinating history. These students might be more concerned with how algebra can help them. For these practical students, algebra should be acknowledged as a gatekeeper subject, as it's often called. These students may be more receptive to learning algebra when they understand that without algebra, countless desirable and lucrative jobs are off the table. This includes jobs in fields such as architecture, chemistry, biology, business and, notably, computer engineering, a field with both a high need and one of the highest average starting pays among major professions.
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