Professor Steven Strogatz teaches students in Math 1300: Mathematical Explorations, an introductory course taken by Cornell undergrads in non-math related majors to fulfill their quantitative reasoning requirement. Many of these students are anxious about taking a math class, based on their prior experiences with math in high school.

“Their college will tell them you have to take some math to graduate. And they don’t want to,” explains Strogatz, who is the Susan and Barton Winokur Distinguished Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Mathematics and the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow.

To challenge their preconceptions and make the subject more engaging—even fun—Strogatz borrowed an activity developed by teachers at Westfield State University in western Massachusetts. The students’ task is to cut out a triangle drawn in the center of a piece of paper, using only a single straight cut.

The goal of the task is to get them to collaborate, come up with creative solutions, and not give up when they’re stumped.

“We’re trying to make it much more like a real mathematical experience where you work on something hard together and try to figure it out,” Strogatz says. “Trial and error are important.”

Strogatz relishes the challenge of making math more palatable to everyone. Much like Music 101 or Art 101, he envisions Math 101—a broadly engaging approach to share the value of mathematical thinking with every person.

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