"Social Justice Mathematician" Kicks Off First Annual SAS Math Weekend
Liz Torrey

In celebration of Mathematics Awareness Month in April, St. Andrew's Math Department organized the school’s first Math Weekend to “explore the beauty, utility, and fun of the discipline," explained Dean of Math & Science Harvey Johnson. Through workshops and speakers, students were encouraged to think of themselves as “math people” and to recognize how math is connected to their lives outside the classroom. Johnson described the weekend as “a huge hit—it was spectacular to to see the community realize how math connects to so many interesting activities and ideas," he noted. 

The weekend kicked off with Friday workshops run by faculty members and Dr. Gary Schiffman P’18,’22, who teaches economic science at Georgetown University and founded Giant Oak, a data science company, in 2013. Workshops centered on the application and relevance of math concepts to a wide variety of "non-math" topics, including philosophy, organized crime, gambling, technology, and competitive games, to name a just a few of the sessions offered. "I always thought of math as numbers, equations, and word problems,” commented Lois Lee ‘22, who is a member of St. Andrew’s Math Team. "But this weekend made me realize that math isn’t just about solving complex numbers—it's interconnected with everything that you do.” 

On Saturday, the student body had the opportunity to meet with and learn from Dr. Po-Shen Loh, professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University and coach of the U.S. International Math Olympiad Team. Loh furthered the idea of math as “a microcosm of reality by showing relevance and connections across disciplines," he said during his talk. “Our role as educators is to make things innately interesting"—by which he means: fun. He engaged students by bringing volunteers on stage to demonstrate how to use math to win at Monopoly. After the talk St. Andrew's Math and physics teacher Chris Sanchez remarked that Dr. Loh “revealed the true fun and power of math—that it is, in fact, a beautiful synthesis of natural, creative, and analytical thinking.” 

Loh fundamentally believes that everyone is a “math person” if they model a growth mindset. “If you can rewire your reward system towards challenge, I highly recommend that,” he said. "What happens in math is that people run into walls. If you have a voice in your head that you are not good at math, you might think that’s why you hit the wall. If not, you might think—'That’s a wall. Maybe I’ll jump it.'"

"Math can feel like the hardest subject," reflected Dr. Johnson after the talk. "But Dr. Loh argued that—from a different perspective—it is also the simplest. Using deductive reasoning, one needs so few starting assumptions to get so much!”  “

One way Dr. Loh encouraged students to use math was as a resource to support social initatives. When asked by a student whether or not he considers himself a mathematician, Loh said: "In some instances I would consider myself a mathematician, but all I really do is wake up and think: how I can make this world a better place?" Loh also runs Expii, a social-justice math project that "brings learning opportunities to everyone regardless of their resources,” noted Dr. Johnson. 

Loh also held a special coaching session with the SAS Math Team. Using what Johnson described as “an unconventional coaching strategy,” Loh has guided the U.S. Math Olympiad Team to three victories on the world stage in the past four years. Pearl Mallick ‘22 described Loh’s approach to coaching as explaining “really advanced topics in a really simple way.” “When Dr. Loh was teaching us,” she said, “he didn’t use any math terms—he wouldn’t even say vectors. He just explained it in a way that made anyone could understand, even if you don’t understand math that well.”

  • Academic News
  • All School News
  • Homepage News
  • Mathematics News