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Solving for “why”

Math Day is an unorthodox entry into a world of quantitative possibilities. But for one alumna, it all adds up.

April 10, 2017

By Cory Phare

Building the tallest building out of spaghetti and marshmallows. Raising a marble off a table without touching it. Popping a balloon in the slowest possible manner.

These aren’t your textbook approaches to arithmetic. And that’s just the point of Math Day.

“We wanted to show students how it’s possible to use math in creative ways beyond the classroom,” said John Carter, assistant professor of mathematical and computer sciences and coordinator of the immersive event. “There’s no question of its impact – we’ve heard from past attendees that it was the reason they decided to pursue math academically, often here at MSU Denver.”

Calculators, pencils and papers with math equations strewn around a desk.

Answers to the big puzzle

One of those attendees was Anayeli Gonzalez Saenz. The 2015 graduate with a teaching licensure in mathematics now quantitatively pays it forward as a teacher at Gateway High School in Aurora.

“Math is a like a big puzzle that you get to solve; it’s fun to look for patterns and find the answers,” said Gonzalez Saenz.

Part of her lifelong love of numbers, it should be no surprise that a key stop along her journey involved building the tallest possible pendulum out of everyday items several years ago on the MSU Denver campus.

“It’s all constantly challenging and engaging – and Math Day really was a highlight for me,” she said.

A group of women huddle around a desk, working together.

More than a day of digits, however, it’s an opportunity for students like Gonzalez Saenz to find their path – in math. She fondly recounted how her experience being part of a problem-solving team during the event led directly to her becoming a Roadrunner.

“[Math Day] played a major role in my decision to come to MSU Denver,” said Gonzalez Saenz. “I became familiar with the campus, professors and programs; more than anything, it was an environment I knew I’d be comfortable in.”

She also noted the supportive community she found when she enrolled, and how taking education classes helped her understand mathematical concepts in a new light.

“I wasn’t thinking about the different ways to do math before,” said Gonzalez Saenz. “But when I learned there were multiple approaches to a problem, it helped me see that education needs to be student-centered.”

Students measure the angle of a long, stretched piece of cord for an engineering experiment.

Creating a space; building a pipeline

Now thriving as an educator, Gonzalez Saenz has a success story that bucks the trend of a dearth of women pursing STEM careers. As an institution, MSU Denver is combatting these inequities with efforts like the annual Women in STEM Conference and grant-funded partnerships with community schools.

According to Carter, creating a culture of inclusion is critical to ensure all students have a positive foundation in mathematics.

“There’s a lot of stress around math in school, where students feel like it’s some kind of intelligence test,” said Carter. “Very rarely do they get to be in a space where they’re encouraged to simply enjoy the pursuit of math without judgment. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Thanks to Math Day, there’s no need for students to go hunting for good will in education – it’s right here on campus.

Each year, MSU Denver’s Math Day hosts teams from area high schools to participate in engineering, geometry and algebra competitions. This year’s takes place on Tuesday, April 18, in St. Cajetan’s Event Center. For more information on the event and potential partnership opportunities, click here.

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