3 Things We Learned From A High School Math Whiz

Photo: Courtesy of Niki Britton/Love is in the Air Photography.
Many of us view math as a dry subject. Its cold, hard numbers and black-and-white solutions can leave those who crave rich stories and context bored, unsatisfied, and discouraged. One teen noted this problem — and found a way to make math more engaging by weaving it into storytelling videos.

After overcoming an eye-tracking condition called convergence insufficiency (which results in letter- and number-swapping issues similar to those of dyslexia), 16-year old Vanessa Thompson realized she had a deep passion for mathematics. She started a site, StorybookMath.org, to explain mathematical concepts with something everyone understands: stories. 

StorybookMath.org is where Thompson and users upload videos that illustrate math concepts in memorable, often silly stories. For mean, median, and mode, for example, the video is about three statistics that go on a late-night talk show. While you’re learning (or re-learning) when to use them in math problems, each concept is presented as a distinct character and personality. In this case, mode is the popular number in the data group — it's the fashion designer. Another video uses the scenario of a “proper” British teatime to talk about improper fractions. In initially making these videos with friends, Thompson found that it helped not just her, but everyone involved, do better on exams. She wanted to share this platform so others could benefit, too. 

The site isn't uber-polished (Thompson still has to go to school each day, after all) but it has garnered achievements such as a U.S. Congressional Commendation, a National Collegiate Entrepreneurship Society Sigma Nu Tau Honorary Entrepreneur Award (the first to be awarded to a high schooler), and a California State Senate Certificate of Recognition for STEM.

We chatted with Thompson, who is speaking at the USA Science and Engineering Festival X-STEM Symposium today, about her accomplishments, and how we can use similar Mary Poppins-style techniques for making potentially boring issues fun. 

How does StorybookMath.org take a different approach to learning and teaching math?
“A lot of traditional methods try to make math better than the textbook. We try to make it just as good as anything that a kid would like — [like] a TV show, like Saturday Night Live for math. Stories are so influential; every culture has stories. It wasn’t until recently that we created this brick wall with colorful stories on one side, and facts and figures on [the other]. I see no reason why we can’t combine them.”

How do you make math interesting?
“I try to make it fun and interactive. You say, ‘What do you love?’ and incorporate math into that, from baseball to fashion design. When we learned circumference, we made a circle skirt.”

Are you nervous about speaking at the conference? What advice do you have for public speaking?
“It depends if I’m passionate about the topic. If you ask me about StorybookMath, I could go on forever; that’s what gets me through my nerves. It’s about ‘This is the message I want to get across.' It’s not about them judging me.”

Thinking towards the future, Thompson wants to pursue environmentalism and statistics. "I feel that math can really be used towards solving climate change," she says. 
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