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MIT economist's 'hard math' books inspire young students

Glenn Ellison, Palm Professor of Economics at MIT
Glenn Ellison, Palm Professor of Economics at MIT

Six years ago when Glenn Ellison volunteered to coach his daughter Caroline's middle-school math team, he hardly realized he would soon become a leading authority in the niche market of advanced mathematics textbooks for elementary- and middle-school students.

After coaching Caroline's team for two years, Ellison, Gregory K. Palm (1970) Professor of Economics, decided to compile the notes, worksheets, and packets he had created into Hard Math for Middle School: IMLEM Edition (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2008) to make the information more easily accessible to kids not on his team.

Although Ellison had intended the book for a small local audience — the middle-school students who participated in the Intermediate Math League of Eastern Massachusetts (IMLEM) — the book took off nationally, selling thousands of copies across the country.

The enthusiastic response to Hard Math for Middle School made apparent the absence of excellent textbooks for above-average math students. This revelation — in addition to the frequent requests from his youngest daughter, Kate — spurred Ellison to create a follow-up textbook designed for an even younger audience.

Raising the bar

Earlier this year, Ellison released his second book, Hard Math for Elementary School (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), geared to challenge third- to sixth-grade students who are capable of working above grade-level math. Ellison hopes his latest book will arm elementary school kids with solid fundamental math skills, as well as curiosity, and an enduring passion for mathematics.

He explains that young, high-achieving students can become complacent or even apathetic in their math classes because the material isn't difficult enough to sustain their interest. To keep such students occupied during class, teachers will often give them the next grade-level textbook; but in many cases even the next-level material is not challenging enough, and these most advanced students simply lose interest in math.

That's where Hard Math for Elementary School comes in. Presenting above-average students math problems that are more difficult and more widely ranging than standard texts, the book has proven exciting to gifted young students.

"Math is really intriguing," says Ellison, "and it's critical for kids to learn math well while they're still young. High school students are harder to reach than third graders, but you can make an impact on elementary school kids by showing them that math is not only interesting, but also pretty cool."

Challenging with a side of fun

Ellison composed Hard Math for Elementary School to be used as an enrichment textbook to supplement classroom lessons. The problems covered in the text are broad and deep in scope, and introduce topics now commonly omitted from elementary school curricula, such as prime numbers, counting, and probability.

The chapters are structured so the first few pages are relatively easy, followed by pages that gradually increase in difficulty, an approach enables kids to gain confidence.

Although Ellison alerts his readers in the introduction that some of the problems are extremely difficult to answer (even for adults), he finds that does not deter high achievers from using the book. Rather, the challenges enthrall such students, who often equate "difficult" with "fun," and feel a great sense of accomplishment when they can solve an especially complex math problem.

Parents who use the book with their children substantiate Ellison's theory. "I love that Glenn does not talk down to students," said Lakshmi Iyer, who uses the book with her second-grade daughter. "He makes it clear early on that this book will be challenging — but most importantly, he presents math as something powerful, beautiful, and fun. I love that he is encouraging kids to reach high. My daughter feels a strong sense of achievement when she manages to get a problem right in his 'hard math' book."

A great resource for students of all ages

Others who have used Ellison's textbook laud him for creating unparalleled supplemental math textbooks.

"I loved the way the book was written — Glenn knows very well how to make difficult material engaging and interesting," said Dina Mayzlin SB '97, PhD '02, who used a pre-publication copy of Hard Math for Elementary School to teach her son's Math Challenge club. "It's an excellent resource with few (if any) alternatives. I am so grateful that Glenn has devoted the time and effort to write this book. His books will have a lot of impact on young kids."

Ying Gao, a senior at Newton North High School, used Ellison's book Hard Math for Middle Schoolthroughout middle school to prepare for the IMLEM and MATHCOUNTS. However, she still references the book and its more advanced topics for her current coursework. And now her nine-year-old brother Steven has begun using Ellison's newest book. He describes the book as "fun" and especially enjoys the jokes Ellison interspersed throughout the lessons.

Inspiring the next generation

Ellison hopes his books ignite more interest in math among younger students. For now, he can appreciate the impact his books are making whenever he attends his daughter's math competitions, where he has attained quasi-celebrity status. Here Ellison encounters numerous kids carrying his middle school math book—an occurrence he describes as "very cool."

"I do get kids who come up to me to tell me how much they like the book, or ask if I can autograph their book," said Ellison. "What would be great is if in 10 to 12 years my MIT students come up to me and say I used your book when I was in fifth grade. That would be really awesome."

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer, Communications Assistant: Kierstin Wesolowski
Images, details from Hard Math covers

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