Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)

Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)
Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)

Lynda Colgan + Math = Mathemagic!

by JUDY WEARING

“You’ll hear people say all the time they can’t do math, and they think this is okay,” says Lynda Colgan, associate professor of education at Queen’s and director of the Community Outreach Centre. “In contrast, it’s socially unacceptable not to be able to read.” Colgan thinks one reason for the tolerance of math illiteracy is that most of the math that people do on a daily basis is invisible. Invisible math is a problem. “We know from a number of studies that parents hold very high standards for their children, they want them to do well in math but they don’t value math themselves. That dichotomy makes it impossible for children to succeed, because if the parents don’t value it, they’re not supporting it.” Colgan takes a multifaceted approach to improving math literacy by dreaming up creative and fun initiatives to engage both children and their parents.

Research in education shows that math anxiety is rampant among students, parents, and teachers. Colgan is directly addressing the twin woes of invisible math and negative attitudes by devoting herself to making math fun in the real world. Her projects have included a bi-weekly newspaper column devoted to everyday math, a children’s book of magic tricks with Kids Can Press (2011) entitled Mathemagic, and a video series for parents of elementary school children in Ontario. Parents are important, believes Colgan. Her goal is “to establish a more positive disposition towards mathematics, in order for parents to see themselves as mathematicians, to see themselves as math role models, to see themselves as math supporters without having to know the content.”

Since 2011, Colgan’s work has also been translated to the screen, in conjunction with TVOKids. The Prime Radicals, a children’s educational television series, has been bursting math anxiety bubbles in living rooms across Canada with its live action, character-driven drama. Each episode is based on Colgan’s research into how children learn – such as through humour and music – and takes multiple approaches to presenting math concepts, all grounded in the experiences of children.

Education research involves following intuition of what works in teaching and what doesn’t, and then examining empirically whether those intuitions are worth pursuit and worth sharing with other people. Colgan’s research looks at the effects of education outside the typical classroom scenario. Museums, guest appearances, community theatre – these are all examples of “informal education.” Colgan’s work is adding support to the notion that rich, fundamental learning takes place in these settings, which also translates into greater success in school. Teaching outside the classroom has significant effects for teacher candidates as well. The low pressure environment alleviates their fears of science, and enriches their understanding of its relevance.

One of Colgan’s main audiences is the general public. In 2011, she initiated the first Kingston Science Rendezvous. Four years later, the annual festival is a contender for the largest of its kind in Canada. The event invites science and technology organizations of all stripes to engage families through displays, experiments, and demonstrations. Part of Colgan’s impetus for this work is to bring the reality of the scientist out in the open. “If you ask an average person to draw you a picture of a scientist they’ll draw an Einsteinian character with whacky hair and they’ll write things like ‘they’re lonely, they work in the lab all night,’” explains Colgan. “But by having opportunities for scientists to make the work that they do accessible to the public… they’re changing stereotypic perceptions. It helps people to understand that scientists are working to improve the quality of their lives.”