How to beat others to the mathematical punch
New MITx MOOC brings the street fighting approach to solving math problems.

Sara Sezun and Steve Carson
Office of Digital Learning

20140326090430-1In a street fight, there are no rules of engagement. To win, you need to think quickly and do the unconventional. Sanjoy Mahajan, visiting associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, brings this no-holds-barred spirit to his upcoming MITx course, 6.SFMx Street-Fighting Math, which starts April 8 and is open for registration on the edX platform. Mahajan will teach students how to calculate approximations in real-life situations, to arrive at an educated guess when exact answers are not easy to obtain.

Mahajan begins the first class of his residential course by writing on the board, “Rigor leads to rigor mortis.” He believes math should be fun, and criticizes methods that rely on rote memorization to teach math. He says, “Because of rigor mortis, people think I do it right, or I don’t do it”, an attitude that intimidates many students. Mahajan likens math to physics experiments. “You investigate it, just like you investigate the world, as a giant laboratory with objects, devices, and patterns.”

One of Mahajan’s major research interests is improving the teaching of math and science by doing away with rote memorization, which he calls “brittle knowledge that doesn’t transfer to any new problem. For instance, in quadratic equations, students have a hard time using ‘y’ as a variable, because they’re always so used to using ‘x’.” He explains that while learning algebra, “[Students] didn’t understand what they were doing. They saw the pattern of using ‘x’ as a pin mark, but didn’t understand its meaning. They only remembered the order of symbols in a formula; they didn’t understand the meaning of what they were doing.” Read more.