In the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” author Ursula Le Guin describes a utopian city that has everything people want or need — beauty, religion, happiness — but it’s all possible because one child is kept in the dark, separated from all joy and light. Citizens of the city have to go and see this boy, but some can’t take the guilt and walk away.
After reading the story, Lev Fruchter and his class talk about what elements make up utopia and use the conversation as a jumping-off point to talk about equations. They talk about adding good things and multiplying them if they’re really great or, inversely, subtracting things that make people unhappy and dividing the really bad elements. This is all a way of thinking about the math that will eventually run a computer program.
“It’s a way to make equations meaningful, which is, of course, what they are in the programs when you write them,” said Fruchter, a computer science teacher at NYC Nest+m, a public K-12 school in New York City for gifted and talented students. “They are much more than a sheet of homework exercises because they make the program go.”
Using literature in this way has allowed Fruchter to make his computer science math classes entirely project-based, which in turn draws the interest of kids who might not have otherwise liked computer programming. “They’re very happy to be in a math or computer science class where they’re not having tests or doing quizzes or being asked to do sheets and sheets of problems,” Fruchter said.
Fruchter loves words, but is comfortable enough with math and science that he was called upon to teach them. Along the way, he discovered stories are a great way to make science, technology, engineering and math ideas accessible and concrete to learners who might not think those kind of technical studies are for them. He’s convinced literature is a great way to excite learners about STEM.
“I’m a narrative learner,” said Fruchter. “I nail down concepts by aligning them to stories or making up stories about them,” he said.
Fruchter used to teach English, but in the 1990s, while working at School for a Physical City — one of New York City’s New Vision schools — he was asked to step in and teach math. He ended up teaching a double period of English and math, but rather than splitting the two subjects up, he used one to support the other.
“I chose books that I knew would give us the mathematical framework to jump off from,” Fruchter said. “Instead of talking about the math concepts from completely abstract or theoretical concepts, I’d say, ‘Hey we’re reading this book.’ ”
On the flip side, he has also taught students who love math and science the way it has traditionally been taught, and who don’t see the value in reading. He’s found that attitude to be more prevalent in the gifted and talented program than at other schools. But he insists kids who excel at calculating can still learn from the human life lessons in books, and may even understand them at a more fundamental level if the abstract ideas can be connected to the numbers and equations they love.
“They may not appreciate it now, but I know that the concepts and themes that are embedded in this fiction I’m having them read are important for this field,” Fruchter said.
When he talks to professional engineers, he often hears them lament the lack of communication skills among colleagues.
“One guy said engineers are lousy communicators because their education includes no training in fiction,” Fruchter said. “He was quite vocal about the need for people who study technical subjects to have some experience in some artistically crafted communication.”
For the rest of this story, head on over to KQED News.
– Original author, Katrina Schwartz
Photo Credit: Creative Commons