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Mathematical talent: recognition and support

I am Dr. Marina Milner-Bolotin – a University of British Columbia professor in Vancouver, Canada. I’ve been a science and mathematics educator for 30+ years in Ukraine, Israel, USA, and Canada. I’ve worked with K-12 students and teachers, also taught undergraduate physics. I’ve always been involved with gifted mathematics and science education. In Israel, I led Olympiada Zuta – a middle school mathematics competition. I also taught in a mathematics enrichment program for gifted elementary students. I was a mathematics and physics teacher in a special program for gifted students at SchoolPlus in New Jersey, USA. In Canada, I have been one of the UBC Physics Olympics organizers, as well as Family Math and Science Day at the UBC Faculty of Education co-founder. I have also worked with gifted homeschoolers and their families.  Since 2020, I’ve been volunteering at the UBC University Transition Program. I currently mentor future mathematics and science teachers.
As long as I remember, I have been passionate about mathematics and science. This is not surprising, as I was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, on the grounds of the Ukraine’s Physical-Technical Institute – one of the premier technical research centers in the former Soviet Union. Most of my family members were involved in technical fields. My mother – a mathematics and physics teacher; my father – an engineer, my grandfather and uncle – physicists working at the institute. Thus, science and mathematics were always part of my life. While I never considered myself to be gifted (maybe because I have heard a lot about very famous neighbors, such as Lev D. Landau or Alexander I. Akhiyezer), I was very interested in these fields finding them intellectually rewarding and stimulating. I also was offered multiple opportunities for growth both at school and at home. Consequently, I was always exposed to interesting mathematical puzzles, problems, and paradoxes, which developed my fascination and joy for figuring things out (paraphrasing famous Feynman’s words). Without being aware of it then, I was fortunate to be surrounded by the people who had deep knowledge and passion for these fields. My parents also never doubted that mathematics and science fields are something I would be capable of contributing to if I am interested.
When I left Ukraine and moved to Israel, USA, and finally to Canada, I realized that my experience was unique. I realized that a lot of K-12 mathematics and science teachers, have rather superficial knowledge and might not have the passion my family and teachers did. Few children have the families who could be as supportive or as knowledgeable as mine to nurture students’ talents. As a result, many kids turned away from mathematics and science without ever experiencing the joy of finding things out. Unfortunately, gifted students were often among them. At that time, I realized that one opportunity to bring such experiences to these students was to focus on informal mathematics and science education.
At first, I worked with the middle school students in Israel. While it was formally an enrichment program for gifted students at the Weizmann Institute of Science, every child who wanted to participate was invited. For many students, it opened a different view of mathematics and science. I remember discussing fractals with the students, Euler’s problem of “The seven bridges of Konigsberg”, combinatorics and Pascal’s triangle, etc. The topics were chosen because they allowed us to develop different perspectives on mathematics. It was not an accelerated program, it was a truly enrichment program for both the students and myself. This gave me the motivation to develop different approaches to mathematics and science education and continue learning.
While working with gifted students in New Jersey, I asked them to question the facts that in their school curriculum were taken for granted and rarely discussed. Many of these students did not do so well in traditional schools, because they were a nuisance to teachers. They asked too many questions, refused to follow instructions or do repetitive worksheets. Maybe these students were not as gifted as the famous C.F. Gauss, but they definitely experienced the boredom of traditional mathematics and science education and unlike their peers, many of these gifted children rebelled. As this also was an enrichment program, I wondered, how difficult it would have been for these students to endure days and days of neither challenging nor intellectually stimulating lessons.
My next big pivotal experience was working with future mathematics and science teachers at UBC. I decided that it was not enough to expect that informal out-of-school education will be sufficient for gifted students. First, how do we define giftedness? Second, how do we know all “gifted” students will have access to these opportunities? Third, since I believe that mathematical and science giftedness is dynamic, how do we ensure we support the development of students’ talents? Educating teachers who can do that became my goal. This is what I currently focus my research and practice on. For example, my student-teachers use phyphox smartphone app to develop projects allowing students to ask their own research questions, design experiment, collect data using their smartphones, and apply mathematics and science knowledge to answer their own questions.
My own experience has shown that to recognize and nurture students’ talents, the teachers, first and foremost have to acquire deep knowledge of the subject and its pedagogy. One of the mathematics books I read as a student that has stayed with me ever since, is the book by a German mathematician – Felix Klein “Elementary Mathematics from an Advanced Standpoint”. Reading this book gave me an opportunity to develop a much deeper view of mathematics, as well as interconnections within mathematics and between mathematics and other sciences. I am convinced that to teach gifted mathematics and science students, teachers have to know far beyond the “traditional curriculum”. Knowing deeper opens unprecedented learning opportunities and helps develop appreciation and joy of experiencing mathematics and science. It also helps teachers see how big ideas in these fields were developed and how many wrong turns were taken by great men and women to build these fields. Thus, intellectual risk taking becomes part of learning. One of the advantages we have today is the educational technology that allows students, especially gifted ones, to try, fail, try again, and eventually experience the joy of figuring things out and seeing the true beauty of our fields. 


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