Math E matics

Monday, July 21, 2003

Do you find mathematics menacing? Do you or your children shy away from the subject, because you're afraid you don't know much about it? Read on.

With the school year fast approaching, help with math is just a click away at

Mathnerds is a free internet service created in 1996 by Dr. Ted Mahavier, professor of mathematics at Lamar University in Beaumont, and Dr. Valerio De Angelis, professor of mathematics at Xavier University in New Orleans.

"Math is a serious subject that a lot of people -- especially students -- think is a four-letter word," says Mahavier, who received his doctoral degree from the University of North Texas. "We want to help people with math and show students it can be a very rewarding subject that can lead to a fantastic career."

De Angilis agrees.

"It's no mystery that too many people have math phobia or math anxiety," he says. "It would be great if we could change that even in a small number of people."

Mahavier, De Angilis and other volunteers help students learn about math by responding to e-mail math questions. However, the self-proclaimed math nerds don't supply the final answers. Instead, they provide hints and references, teaching people to overcome their fears and solve their own math problems.

The site, currently supported by funding from Lamar University, includes an

archive of approximately 30,000 questions; a section of helpful exchanges between math experts and clients; a section devoted to discovery-based methods of solving math problems; and links to a host of other mathematical sites.

"Our discovery-based approach enhances math education by guiding students through concepts so they can learn to find answers on their own," Mahavier says. "If a student is really willing to work and use the material, they will be successful at this technique."

De Angelis agrees.

"There's no learning without a degree of initiative on the part of the student," he says.

He should know. De Angelis and the other team members are established mathematicians or tenured professors at well-known universities. He says they offer their expertise as a way to share their enthusiasm about math. clients choose a category, ranging from kindergarten level through graduate-level courses, then complete a form and submit a question.

A team member receives the question and can either answer it within 48 hours or move it to the general queue for others to answer.

The experts respond to questions differently. Allen Stenger, a longtime volunteer and retired computer programmer, says he responds to nearly everything he receives as well as questions from the general queue.

"After a lengthy exchange with a client, it's gratifying to see an understanding growing through their work with our hints," he says.

Mahavier says by preparing students in this manner, the instructor assures that

inquiring minds, who want to learn how the process works, can follow the "Best" link on the site, which includes selected problems and the hints given to solve them.

"These are the nicest and most interesting questions we've received over the years," De Angelis says.

For example, readers can discover how to find a false coin in a certain number of weighings or how to determine the shortest road required to connect a number of towns. And titles such as "The Case of the Missing Mangos" and "The Notorious Jumping Function of Continuum County" prove that math -- or at least mathematicians -- can be fun.

Before signing off the web site, many people comment about their visit in the "Guestbook" section

"We currently have more than 55 pages of positive user feedback in our guestbook," says Mahavier. "People tell us they love the site. Others say it's helped them learn about logarithms and progressions."

One of Mahavier's favorite responses came from a client in India: "None of my teachers or friends is willing to help me (with math problems) unless and until they get some material gains out of that help, but you have been helping me throughout. Thanks a lot, sir."

Mahavier says he likes it when clients say, "Thanks. Now I understand."

De Angelis is gratified when clients overcome their fear of math.

After logging on to, students will not only have help in overcoming math jitters, but will also be better prepared for the coming school year.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108