PI Day and Finding Joy in Math

Brandon Dorman

For many, Pi day might be seen as a fun day in math class where they might eat some pi or have pizza. And that’s fine.

But I always saw it as much more. For me Pi Day was just one day in a whole classroom year that strove to portray mathematics as not just boring memorization of facts and theorems, but something that NEEDED creativity, problem solving, patterns, and people.

Pi Day activities that I compiled into a document over the years included using ancient methods of calculating PI, facts about where it was first used and why… as well as doing my best to have brought up those historical figures throughout the year. It may not help a student procedurally to know who Archimedes was, but it certainly may help spark curiosity.

Mathematics for me growing up was something I enjoyed when I was good at, but sometimes got stuck and didn’t know how to ‘go around it’. I’ve recounted before that the first time I really remember struggling with something and getting it was in college studying something called Quaternions in a problem solving class. I’d learned about vector and scalars in linear algebra, and quaternions take that idea and push it … a bit further.

What was cool about it was during that one course project I learned about installing some pretty complex software on my Linux machine, as well as understood later topics around motion etc a lot better — and it wasn’t because of a grade but because of curiosity that was encouraged by my professor at the time, Dr. Chris Brownell. The “Dr. Chris” part came later but I like it. At FPU he was just Chris. I remember going into his office when I was about halfway done with the presentation and saying I was really getting confused and worried that where my presentation was leading was beyond what I was ready for. He encouraged me that the fact that I was pursuing bigger ideas was exactly the point of the assignment and that I was almost there. “Don’t be afraid of the math” he said. Not coincidentally, he and Sunil Singh are releasing a book called Math Recess very soon that I can’t wait to read!

Likewise, I encouraged my students to not be afraid of the math… that it was more important to understand the general idea of what was being done before trying the math. (Something I think Desmos’ Marble Slides is excellent for! Wish I’d had it when teaching Algebra 2).

One of my all time favorite videos demonstrating this curiosity approach was a three act math task around a domino spiral.

I simplified it a bit for the 7th graders to just model it with concentric circles instead of a spiral… but approximation is good too! Check out the reaction of the kids as they saw the results of their models vs the reality!

So in conclusion, I measure the success of Pi day not with a single day or experience, but in how I still get students sending me messages on PI day in some cases 10 years after I had them as students. I’ve heard from some that although they may not have realized it at the time, in my class they learned that people could be passionate about learning mathematics for the first time. Sure I failed in many ways as a teacher… but if I did anything right, I hope at least some students approach mathematics with the joy of problem solving instead of drudgery!

Pi-cycle shirt a former student and his wife gave me this weekend! I’m also into triathlons…

Brandon Dorman

Written by

One role is Product Manager on OpenSALT, Co-Chair CASE Taskforce. Adjunct prof of Education, 9 year 7-12 math Teacher in Fresno unified.

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