Want to bring math to life for a middle schooler? Stick the worksheets back in a folder and pull out a game board.
In a new partnership called Dins and Dogs – a nod to each school’s mascot – Furman math and science students are meeting biweekly with students from Berea Middle School to work through open-ended STEM questions together.
This is not a tutoring program, an important distinction to Casey Hawthorne, assistant professor of math education. Instead, the older and younger students are exploring mathematical concepts together. There’s no set path for where the inquiry will take them, no answer sheet to check.
“What do mathematicians do? They have a question and they start playing with it,” Hawthorne said.
For many of the new teams, that meant starting with a game. Some, for example, are exploring tic-tac-toe. How many possible paths are there to victory? How many combinations lead to a stalemate? What happens if the game grid is four-by-four instead of three-by-three?
“It can be applied to nearly everything,” said Emily Fowler ’25. “We’re just finding random board games and finding ways math relates.”
Computation is involved, but so are concepts such as pattern recognition and data analysis.
“We’re doing mathematical things with not very innately mathematical concepts,” said Joey Maness ’25.
Hawthorne has always prioritized getting his students, especially preservice teachers, into local schools. But this year-long partnership takes that to a new level.
Most middle school students have never participated in what Hawthorne calls “authentic math.” That is, they’re learning methods and doing practice problems, but the work often isn’t tied to anything real for them.
Now, the Berea students are exploring tangible questions and they’re doing it alongside college students who are exploring, too.
“Dins and Dogs, you’re not just figuring out the answer to the question, you’re also learning how to learn,” said Michael Arsiniega, the middle school’s site coordinator for Communities in Schools. He said the program gives his kids the chance to be both teacher and student.
Hawthorne hopes the younger students will feel the leveling effect of no one having an answer at the outset.
“All information in that session is coming from that moment,” Maness said. “You contemplate as you move along.”
After just one meeting, Fowler already felt the energy of joint discovery with her younger partners.
“We were in it together,” she said. “The problem-solving and the thinking behind it, we were just right alongside each other.”
Six Furman students are participating this first year, each paired with two Berea students. Arsiniega said it was a priority for him to offer a program for students who are ready for challenges.
The teams will meet for an hour and a half every other week until April. Then they’ll present their work together at Furman Engaged, a day dedicated each year to highlighting the diverse and immersive learning experiences made available by The Furman Advantage.
Hawthorne hopes that answering their own questions will help the younger students to learn that math comes from people and to begin to self-identify as mathematicians.
On an even more basic level, his students hope to show their younger partners that math is worth their energy and attention.
“To a middle schooler, a college student is kind of the ideal, the coolest thing they’ve ever seen in their life,” Fowler said. “To see college students talking about how cool math is might influence them to think math is cool.”
Added Maness: “We’re giving them a taste of, ‘Oh, this is something I can do.’”