"Learning with Alisha!" helps kids learn geometry

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgA good friend and colleague of mine, Alisha Wallers recently sent me an email about a new company she has founded. She used to be a mainstay of the feminist engineering education group until she "retired" to spend more time focusing on the education of her kids. Since then, she started "Learning with Alisha!" which has recently launched its first product, the Pink Polygons, designed to help kids with geometry. Read more about Alisha's company below the fold.

Dear Friends,

Learning with it Alisha! is an LLC that I formed with my dad, David Weathers. Our goal is to find the gaps in what is currently available to teachers in K-12 math and invent, produce, and market new products to fill those gaps. While working with 3rd grade teachers at my neighborhood school, I realized that drawing shapes on the board while teaching geometry was frustrating to them. In response, David and I developed our first product, the Pink Polygons. These 20 different shapes are large enough so that they can be seen front the back of the room. You can find more information about them at our web site, www.LearningwithAlisha.com. You can find an order form there too!

The other part of our mission is providing workshops. We offer workshops for teachers to deepen their mathematical understanding and enhance their teaching. We also offer workshops for parents to enable them to assist their children more effectively and to introduce new approaches to teaching math, such as the Math Expressions curriculum. Finally, we offer tutoring to students in K-16 math.

I'm sure you will not be surprised to learn that we donate 10% of our profits to charities. For 2008-2010 we are focusing our donations on the education of homeless children. In DeKalb County [Georgia] alone, there are 3,000 homeless families with school-aged children! In addition, our company is committed to minimizing our environmental footprint. Believing that we also must contribute freely to the common good, we have a web site section, called "Freebies," where teachers can download free manipulatives to use.

Thank you for your support and encouragement as I continue in this new adventure.

Have any of you used this product? Any thoughts for Alisha as she continues her journey to help kids learn math better?

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Yep, I can think of a few ideas... :) I think Alisha and I should talk!

I will be sure to pass her site along to the teachers I work with. Thanks Alice for the post!

By Gina Navoa Svarovsky (not verified) on 13 Feb 2009 #permalink

If she's interested to talk with another 'science business', she's welcome to email. US law on children's products also changed quite a bit this month.

Thanks for the post, Alice!

I appreciate the supportive comments as well, Gina and Sara. I will get in touch with each of you next week.

One thing that has been very interesting about marketing this product is people's reactions to the color - pink. They keep asking if I have them in another color, "not that I have anything against pink, honestly!" Simply asking for another color is direct evidence that sexism is alive and well in the USA. :-) Pink is definitively associated with female and most people would prefer a different color. The color jars people somehow. Although no one has come up to me and said "I'm sexist and I hate pink," the consistant questioning of the color demonstrates the cultural/societal sexism that is pervasive, but hidden to most folks.

I've been gently responding, pointing out that by avoiding red, green, blue, and black, the colors of most overhead markers all show up on the pink color, even yellow. So students can draw angle bisectors, drop perpendiculars, etc. with differently color markers. At the end of class, all the marks erase with a damp paper towel.

My dad has a different tactic -- he references breast cancer support, which "works" in an interesting way with other men, especially of his age. :-) (Almost) any route to the goal? (* that's a deep question for a Friday evening! *)

This is cool, but I don't think not liking pink is sexist. Honestly, it just makes me nauseous. I got really sick as a kid from bubblegum flavored penicillin and I hated taking pink bismuth. Gross. That particular shade of pink just brings back those memories. Nothing sexist at all. Just don't like it. Good luck.

I'm not an elementary school teacher, so I don't know for sure, but is there really a market for paying $9 for a triangular (or whatever shape) piece of fiberboard?

Colors can different meanings to different people for all sorts of reasons. I can see why some people wouldn't like pink that might have nothing to do with gender roles.. Say like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pink_triangle

While there are lots of examples of math being taught in a way that is more accessible to boys, it doesn't seems like the basic geometry concepts covered by these shapes were among them.

The Pink Polygons is not a product which is supposed to make math more fun or availble to girls and I don't think basic geometry is taught in a sexist way any more than any other math topic. The need for them arose in real classrooms where teachers were struggling to draw transformations of polygons on the board.
The manipulatives that are currently available to teach geometric shapes are very small (about an inch in diameter), are limited in diversity (equilateral triangle, square, isosc trapezoid, rhombus, and octagon), and are differently colored (e.g. a triangle is green). We think is it possible that the different colors are the first characteristic students use to identify the shape, so we decided to make ours all the same color. The currently available shapes are green, tan, yellow, orange, and red, which doesn't leave too many choices that are different from the available ones.
Of course not every woman likes pink, just like not every man likes blue. No need to essentialize. However, I think the overall reaction to the pink color is much stronger than it would be if we had chosen green.
Whether there is a market for them remains to be seen. :-)

I am a big believer in using a variety of tools/techniques to make math accessible to all kids. I tend to have a better ability to grasp new concepts visually, these seem like something that would have been great for me. The color doesn't threaten me, but my (lack of) taste tends toward the bold and bright rather than the subtle and muted.

Tangentially, I know that a common difference is that girls (tend to) develop language and social skills earlier, and boys (tend to) develop spatial reasoning earlier. I've always attributed the disparity at least partially to socialization.. little girls are more often encouraged to talk and socialize and little boys are more often encouraged to build things. As with most generalities, this one is often not true in specific cases, but it seems plausible that women who do well in male dominated fields like physics and engineering may have been socialized differently. An alternate (though not mutually exclusive) explanation is that they just had (really good) teachers who were able to explain topics in a way that made more sense than the way it is usually taught.

I've often wondered if effectiveness of algebraic vs geometric approaches to certain topics would show a difference for girls and boys. On of my favorite professors in college taught me abstract algebra and number theory. Sometimes she would take an algebraic approach to topics that I thought were more straightforward when approached geometrically (e.g. rotational and transpositional permutations.) When I asked her, she said that the algebraic treatments made more sense to her[*]. I wonder if algebra is closer to language, and therefore more accessible to (most) girls, and geometry is more visual/spatial and therefor more accessible to (most) boys. Of course, all this is anecdotal, and I have no idea if any of it is true, but would love to know if there is any research on the topic.

-- Mitch

[*] Of course, another reason was that the algebraic treatments were more useful in proofs, which is mostly what worked on, but I thought that the geometric treatments provided a better intuitive sense of the topic.