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Episode 23: Math Is Play! - National Math Festival Preview with Dr. Emille Davie Lawrence

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

Desiree Harrison 0:31

Today on the podcast, we have Dr. Emille Davie Lawrence, who is the term associate professor and chair of mathematics and statistics at the University of San Francisco and is also a self-proclaimed math coach. Thank you for being on the podcast and welcome!

Dr. Emille Davie Lawrence

Dr. Emille Davie Lawrence 0:47

Thank you! It's a pleasure to be here. So, we have been connected through the National Math Festival, which happens every other year and this year it is completely being done online. And it's a fabulous event. I had the chance to attend two years ago when it was live in D.C. and I've been following it on Twitter and on the actual website. Now, they're having different events to kind of whet your appetite for the main event which is happening April 16 through the 18th (2021). It's completely free, and it's for children of all ages and that includes adults of all ages. And, so, Dr. Lawrence, you have a presentation at this math festival, and it's happening on Sunday, April 18th, called Math is Play!

And I know you can't give us all the details, but if you could just give us a sneak peak into what you mean by math is play and what you might be talking about during this presentation.

Dr. Emille Davie Lawrence 1:54

Sure! So, I came up with the title because I've always enjoyed math as sort of a game. So, I started liking math as a child, and of course, you know, children like to play, and math always seemed like just fun and games to me. Even, like, the rigors of algebra felt like, you know, solving for x felt like, you know, this search or excursion that I was going on to figure out the right answer. So, math is play, my presentation, will really just be presenting mathematics as games. A few games, and I hope I'll be able to engage the people tuning in.

One of my favorite math games, which I'll try to play during the presentation, is a game called Set. So Set is a card game, and you know, if you're playing this game, you sort of deal out the cards, and you try to find a set of three cards that have a certain attribute, and I won't go into the dirty details of the attributes of the cards right now, but it's a really fun game, it's engaging, and it's all about finding patterns, right, and classifying these attributes on the cards.

And that is really what mathematics is all about - classifying things, saying when two things are the same, saying when two things are not the same. These are very, very important ideas in mathematics, and they're ideas that run throughout mathematics from the lowest to the highest level. So I personally feel that if students saw math as play more, you know, and not sort of a chore that they just have to get through, I think that more people, more students, would like math, and could see the beauty of mathematics and maybe could even start to see mathematics everywhere. Not just in a classroom, per se, but the mathematics that's all around, you know, in puzzles, and Sudoku, and even things like Poker, you know. If people saw mathematics in all those fun type aspects, I think we might have a different culture surrounding mathematics. We sort of have a fear of math in our culture and I hope that, you know, in my little segment of the world, I can change that a bit.

Desiree Harrison 4:23

Some of my earliest experiences, like when I was 5 and 6, of counting, and adding, are me playing games with my mom - in our family room. And board games, and Parcheesi was one of my absolute favorite board games and my mom probably got sick of my asking to play, but she always did play with me, and it's so important to build the social aspects around the game play, and to just have, like you were saying, to help kids understand that this is everywhere. It's not just from 9:10-9:50 every morning in their class.

Dr. Emille Davie Lawrence 5:06

That's exactly right, and it's so funny that you mentioned games that you played with your mom as a child. That brings up for me the fact that I've got two children, they're 5 and 6, and they're in kindergarten and 2nd grade, and we have these bath time math games as well. They're just games that we make up. So, you know, they like to make up these little- they call them math problems - but they're actually just like story problems that they make up, and they kind of quiz each other and they quiz me. And even just doing fun little things for 15 or 10 minutes even with kids - it makes a huge difference.

I believe that in just their math sense - You know, I mean, we're not doing anything super rigorous, but they're just using that muscle and building it, and I think that's going to be important when they're actually in the classroom, it's going to feel easier and hopefully even fun for them.

Desiree Harrison 6:05

So, I am definitely looking forward to your presentation because they're so many games our there and it sounds like you're going to be able to give us insights on a different approach just to help us think differently about some things that we're already doing and especially things that parents are already doing to help them access information in a different way. Or to help them gain new meaning, or just to look at family hour to this as - it is meaningful because you're growing closer as a family, but it's also meaningful because you're enriching your child's experience and growing their brain at the same time.

Dr. Emille Davie Lawrence 6:49

Absolutely! I look froward to it as well. I hope that people attend and enjoy and get something out of it and take away something that they could maybe bring back to their own household.

Desiree Harrison 6:59

For sure. And, I know that on your website, you have a quote that I just want to talk to you a little bit about because I found it so powerful. It says, "I believe that mathematics is not just an important subject. It is a social justice lever."

And, we've talked on the podcast a lot about social justice and to help keep the conversation about math active and positive so that all children view themselves as being capable and competent. And to help educators and parents engage in those conversations to build up positive self identities. But this key word of "lever" is something that we haven't necessarily attached to social justice on the podcast, so please enlighten us.

Dr. Emille Davie Lawrence 7:45

Yeah, so, when I said I think of math as a social justice lever, I am meaning that mathematics can sort of be a catapult from middle or elementary school, all the way to college and beyond. It's a door opener, okay.

So, I think no one would argue with the fact that literacy is an important aspect of learning, right. We all need to be able to read to learn. Well, math literacy, I feel people may sort of overlook the importance of math literacy in opening doors to all types of learning as well.

So, these ideas, I just want to be clear, they're not my ideas. These ideas have been studied and talked about for many years. I think it was Bob Moses's book Radical Equations, so if anybody wants to go and read about these ideas even further. That book Radical Equations, which came out, I think in about the 1980s, really digs in and explores this idea of middle school algebra being this gateway to opportunities to Calculus in high school, and then college, and opportunities beyond.

So, math as a social justice lever, means that all students should have the opportunity to have algebra in middle school, so that by the time they get to 12th grade, they will have had calculus, and that prepares them for college and opportunities even beyond that.

So, when we don't see that opportunity of taking algebra in middle school, there is a domino effect that is sort of stifling for some children. They're not on that college prep track- they're on a different track. So, putting that algebra in middle school, it's a door opener, and a gate keeper for the college track that would follow. So that is what I meant.

Desiree Harrison 9:58

I've heard that gatekeeper analogy a lot, and it seems be kind of creeping back into the forefront in recent years, and not just algebra, but also fractions. And how important those concepts are to really having the flexibility and to having more freedom and more opportunities as you get older.

Dr. Emille Davie Lawrence 10:21

Absolutely. You can see it. I mean, there's data on this, where if you don't have these opportunities early, it follows you throughout the rest of your education. So it's really important that everyone has that opportunity to see, you know, concepts of advanced math as early as possible. Because it is -it separates students into two different tracks from that point forward. So if we could get more schools, schools in underserved communities, more schools pushing higher level mathematics earlier, I think we would see a huge shift by the time that these students get to high school and beyond. It really does make a difference.

Desiree Harrison 11:05

It comes back to beliefs also, about the teacher, administrator, or whoever is making the decisions, to make sure that it doesn't turn into two tracks, where one track gets all the opportunities and then the other track does not because those in that track aren't deemed as capable, or worthy, or whatever you want to put in there.

Dr. Emille Davie Lawrence 11:28

Absolutely. And we know where that can lead.

Desiree Harrison 11:05

So, yes, we are on a mission to truly be for all, that everyone is capable and everyone can have those rich experiences.

I want to thank you Dr. Lawrence for taking the time to be on the podcast to tell us a little bit about your upcoming presentation - we will be watching!

And again, if you haven't registered for the National Math Festival, it is completely free, registration is still open. You can head to for more information.

So, thank you again Dr. Lawrence!

Dr. Emille Davie Lawrence 12:07

My pleasure! Thank you for having me.

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