Math On The Street
- Subject: Math On The Street
- From: Ed Levine <eddie185@YAHOO.COM>
- Date: Thu, 7 Feb 2002 08:38:23 -0800
- Reply-to: Assessment Reform Network Mailing List <ARN-L@LISTS.CUA.EDU>
- Sender: Assessment Reform Network Mailing List <ARN-L@LISTS.CUA.EDU>
If math happens and there's no standardized test to measure it, does
it still count? This article from today's Times addresses the issue.
New York Times, February 7, 2002
PROBLEMS ON THE STREET, SOLVABLE WITH A PENCIL
By YILU ZHAO
In a drizzling rain, a 63-year-old professor, George Nobl, stood on a
stretch of Times Square sidewalk the other day beside an easel
blithely daring passers-by to solve a math problem.
"Fred can paint a room in three hours," the problem, printed in block
letters on paper pinned to the easel, said. "Mary can paint the same
room in two hours. How long will it take them to paint the room
"Solve the problem, and win a Snickers bar," the message added.
In an area known for bullhorn- wielding sidewalk evangelists,
three-card monte games and even the occasional chess face-off, some
thought Professor Nobl was a con artist. Some figured he was
promoting a candy bar, while others asked whether he was signing
people up for long-distance telephone service. Many walked away, but
quite a few lingered to study the problem.
It turned out Professor Nobl had nothing up his sleeve except a
quirky effort to promote the fun of math. Every Wednesday at noon
since last summer, he has stood on West 42nd Street between Fifth and
Sixth Avenues challenging passers- by in this eccentric fashion.
"If people want to answer those trivial questions in `Who Wants to Be
a Millionaire,' then why not give them a math problem?" he asked.
While he may not be the only person in America complaining about the
fear of math demonstrated by too many students and the conflicting
methods of teaching the subject, he may be the only one to turn
himself into a Johnny Appleseed of math.
Mr. Nobl is a Hungarian-born adjunct math professor at Long Island
City's DeVry Institute, a technical college, and at the Laboratory
Institute of Merchandising, a small Midtown design college, teaching
college algebra and precalculus at both. Educated at Columbia
University, he was a sculptor before he turned to his second passion
? teaching math ? seven years ago.
He is now seeking grants to start a nonprofit group to hire a few
teachers who would put up similar stands around the city and
challenge pedestrians with math problems. Eventually, he would like
to instruct teachers on his way of teaching math, which he describes
as proficiency derived from understanding.
"Americans don't naturally hate math," he said. "Look, a lot of
people stop by my stand to think about the problems. It's so easy to
teach math right. Why teach it wrong?"
While Professor Nobl's intent may be quite noble, other advocates
have found less dramatic ways to achieve their goals. Professor Nobl
could publish articles or write to a congressman. Why preach on the
"There is an actor inside me," he said. "I like doing things in the
street." Professor Nobl is blissfully unaware of the heated national
debate about whether understanding is more important than memorizing
formulas for success in math. He says that once a student truly
grasps a rule, getting the correct answer is easy. An approximate
answer will not earn a Snickers bar from him.
"In American classrooms, people memorize this and memorize that,"
Professor Nobl said. "They memorize step one, two, three for certain
problems, and they take the Regents, and then 10 days after the test,
they forget about it all."
When many of his students here told him they hated math, he said:
"Inevitably they had a fourth- or fifth-grade teacher who told them,
`Math isn't about why; it just is.' They see math as an obscure
religion. You perform those steps, and then you are O.K."
On a recent Wednesday, a crowd gathered around Professor Nobl, an
elfish man in a suit and a beret, and after being convinced that he
was not there to bilk pedestrians, some asked him for pencils,
notepads and calculators to scribble some solutions. After a few
minutes, several people in the crowd whispered answers into his ears
by turns, with most of them guessing that the answer was two and a
"If it takes one person two hours to paint the room, how come it
would take longer for them to do the task together?" Professor Nobl
Tom Mansley, a nearby office worker on his way to lunch, was one of
the few who got the correct answer. "You don't need a lot of
mathematical background for this problem, but it's tricky," he said
after calculating on a notepad for five minutes. "I would have stood
here all day in the rain to solve it. I like to meet challenges."
David Williams, a social worker who graduated from public schools in
the Bronx and went on to college, was less lucky. "When I see a word
problem, I don't know which rule to use," Mr. Williams said. "I
remember a lot of rules, but I don't know which one is the right
For those who stuck around, Professor Nobl explained that the correct
answer is one hour and 12 minutes. Here is how he solved it, he said.
Fred paints a third of a room in one hour, and Mary a half. So
together they can paint five- sixths of a room in an hour. To paint
the entire room, they will need six- fifths of an hour, or an hour
and 12 minutes.
Nine out of 10, Professor Nobl said, get it wrong. Still, his face
lit up when a young man whispered the correct answer barely after
finishing reading the problem.
It turned out that the young man, Ofir Beigel, was not an American
but a tourist from Israel.
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