Sometime around junior high, this Weizmann science writer stumbled upon Mathematical Games, the late Martin Gardner’s monthly math puzzle at the back of my mom’s Scientific American, and I became a devotee. The best ones, of course, were those that required a little sideways thinking, and these yielded the pleasure of that “Aha” moment when the answer became clear. (For more on the neurobiology of the Aha moment, look at our site.)
So it is no surprise (to me at least) that of the hundreds of science education programs offered through the Davidson Institute of Science Education (the educational arm of the Weizmann Institute), possibly the most successful is Math by Mail.
Math by Mail has been operating continuously for 30 years. The math puzzles are now published in four languages – Hebrew, Arabic, English and Spanish; and it is used today in classrooms in Canada, the US, Australia, Romania, Mexico and Brazil. It has also made appearances in Russia, Germany, South Korea, and even Ghana.
In those pre-Internet days, kids did, indeed, get their math puzzles in the mail. They filled them out in pencil and sent them back to the Institute, waiting for the next envelope to find out how they did. Today, there is a full staff just for this program. Kids get their math problems online and the Israeli ones participate in weekly chats with the math graduate students and staff members who run the program.
For over a decade, Dr. Yossi Elran and his wife Michal have been the heart and mind of Math by Mail. They set the agenda – making math fun – and they add something else – a personal touch and an attitude that says it’s not about the score, but about stretching the mind and learning to think in different ways. They keep in close contact with the various groups doing Math by Mail around the world, and even travel to annual Math-by-Mail events – sort of recreational math meets combined with magic shows – held annually in Canada, the US, Australia and Romania.
The program has grown by personal contact and word of mouth. For example, Dr. Irene Eizen, a professor at Temple University College of Education, was on a tour of Israel in 2010 that included the Davidson Institute, and a meeting was arranged for her with the Elrans. She came away from that meeting with one of the program’s workbooks, and she then spent the rest of the trip working through the problems. Upon her return to Philadelphia, Eizen, whose area of expertise is math education, proposed the program to a local Jewish day school. At this point, Eizen administers the program in four schools – three Jewish schools and a Catholic school. She is hoping to expand the program next year to another 2-5 schools, some of them in Northern New Jersey.
Eizen promotes the program by meeting with parents in the various schools, and she regularly meets with the teachers, as well. “It enriches the regular school program, and it really teaches the kids problem solving,” she says. “Yossi and Michal have been extremely supportive and understanding of our particular needs.” In fact the Philly schools are about to undertake a new pilot project – Science by Mail – which will be translated from Hebrew to English for the purpose.