Snack Bar 

Steven Strogatz is making math more fun

Professor Steven Strogatz teaches students in Math 1300: Mathematical Explorations

Professor Steven Strogatz teaches students in Math 1300: Mathematical Explorations, an introductory course taken by Cornell undergrads in non-math related majors to fulfill their quantitative reasoning requirement. Many of these students are anxious about taking a math class, based on their prior experiences with math in high school.

“Their college will tell them you have to take some math to graduate. And they don’t want to,” explains Strogatz, who is the Susan and Barton Winokur Distinguished Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Mathematics and the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow.

To challenge their preconceptions and make the subject more engaging—even fun—Strogatz borrowed an activity developed by teachers at Westfield State University in western Massachusetts. The students’ task is to cut out a triangle drawn in the center of a piece of paper, using only a single straight cut. Students don’t take long to ask whether it’s ok to fold the paper (the answer is yes). As a warm-up, Strogatz has the students cut out an equilateral triangle and a square, a challenge that all students successfully tackle. But when they try a triangle with three unequal sides, they have a much harder problem to work out.

The goal of the task is to get them to collaborate, come up with creative solutions, and not give up when they’re stumped.

He plans to share the triangle and other engaging math content in a New York Times series he’ll be authoring in fall 2024. Strogatz previously wrote for the paper in 2010, helping to share the joy of math with learners of all ages. The possibility of changing people’s minds about math excites him.