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Mark Saul working to solve U.S.'s math problem

Math teacher Mark Saul, a member of AAAS, addresses his students at New Design High School in Manhattan. (Photo: Katherine Lee)

In the heart of Manhattan's Lower East Side, in a still somewhat gritty area where a diverse mix of  ethnicities, cultures, and economic classes live and work side-by-side, a math teacher is playfully encouraging a group of 12th graders at New Design High School to solve a problem he has written on the board.

Clad in stylish clothing, accessorized with the carefully crafted armor of cool nonchalance, the five boys and four girls mirror the ethnic mix of the neighborhood—white, black, Hispanic and Asian. Based on looks alone, these students could be any average high-school math class in a big city. But as ordinary as these students may seem, they are not, in fact, typical. They are gifted in math, and they are here to play with numbers and concepts. Today's math problem has to do with combinatorics, which involves arranging combinations and permutations from a finite set.

Their teacher is AAAS member Mark Saul, Ph.D., the director of The Center for Mathematical Talent (CMT) at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. Launched in September 2010, the program aims to identify and support pre-college students in the New York City area who are gifted in math but don't have access to programs that can help identify and nurture those talents. Saul, 63, has spent 35 years as an educator in public schools teaching math and computer science, making him an ideal choice to head such a program.

With a twinkle in his eye and an irrepressible grin on his face, Saul possesses the demeanor of someone leading a fun game rather than a math lesson. He engages the students, addressing them as a group, and then goes to each desk one-by-one to check on their progress, affectionately encouraging and prodding them along.

When Saul sees one student stop working, seemingly discouraged, he goes to him. "I did it wrong," says the teen. "I'm mad." Without a beat, Saul replies, "Don't get mad. Get even." After conferring a few minutes, Saul has the boy put the problem up on the board. As he and a few others take turns writing their solutions on the board, it becomes clear that a pattern is emerging. With a few strokes of his pen, Saul shows that the students' answers—including that of the boy who was unsure of his answer—form a cube. What they are working on is a binary code, a computer language that expresses text using the numbers 0 and 1.

For Saul, the challenges of teaching kids who are low-performing as well as high-performing holds a particular allure. "Kids in the middle are much more predictable. They know their limits. The high-achieving kids are unpredictable, and one can almost say the same thing about low-achieving kids," he explains.

The other component of CMT's mission is to help teachers and schools rethink their approach toward math. "Once kids have passed standardized tests, there is no institutional incentive to go further," says Saul. "We want teachers to stop seeing math as something to get through, because that attitude is communicated to the kids. We want to show teachers what levels of understanding to look for, and to say, 'Here's a part that's hard for the kids.'" Ultimately, says Saul, "we want teachers to ask, 'Are they learning what we think they're learning?'"

Describing CMT's program as a "laboratory" that is giving teachers the tools they need to instill a love of math in children, Saul envisions the program reaching teachers and children in unexpected places around the city and, eventually, the country. "Our ultimate goal is to get it institutionalized so that everyone can see that kids everywhere can do math," says Saul. "If you can help a child reach that joy of achieving and learning something, then you've done your job."

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Math teacher Mark Saul, a member of AAAS, addresses his students at New Design High School in Manhattan. (Photo: Katherine Lee)
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