Well-meaning adults have been trying to “make math cool” for some time. The effort has been pretty fruitless—unless you count the bad boy swagger of Sir Isaac Newton (one of the first celebrity mathematicians) or the eccentric antics of Sesame Street’s Count von Count—a vampire who beat the Twilight phenomenon by a good 30 years.
Chris de Firmian may have finally cracked the code. Turns out, it all comes down to four wheels, a board, and a little number-crunching ingenuity. Last week, I found the technical education teacher at SLO’s Ludwick Community Center, surrounded by sixth-through-eighth graders in the midst of a truly nontraditional math lesson.
There were no Scantrons or sleeping students. Instead, youth were busy gluing, laminating, designing, cutting, shaping, and drilling their own individual skateboards, all the while learning a slew of critical math skills.
Why, you ask?
As de Firmian likes to say: “I’ve never seen a kid get fired up about a math book, but I’ve seen one get fired up about a skateboard.”
Come September, de Firmian will continue his Skateboard Building Program at Pacific Beach High School in San Luis Obispo, a continuation school that caters to students looking to graduate with their peers.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- SKILLFULL SUMMER: Riley Logan sands his skateboard to perfection at a class provided by SLO Parks and Recreation Summer Program in early August. Taught by technical education teacher Chris de Firmian, the sixth-through-eighth graders have been working to strengthen their math skills while building their own set of wheels.
In order to complete their boards in the allotted time, students must have good attendance habits, apply themselves, and effectively communicate with one another. Each step in the building process includes math worksheets and helpful guides.
“For example, while using vacuum bags for laminating layers of hardwood veneer together to make the shaped skateboard decks, students calculate the number of pounds per square inch that are being exerted onto the veneer,” de Firmian said. “To design their deck shape, students make a paper template.”
Youth learn how to create an X-Y axis—and how to ensure that all of their mounting hole layout points are parallel and perpendicular to the centerline of the board. The fun also includes calculating measurements with help from the Pythagorean Theorem (yes—even the old Pythagorean Theorem is getting a few new cool points).
In an alternate universe, these kids could be making boats. Before de Firmian connected skateboard making with math, he had a whole different agenda.
“I got the idea a few years ago, when my daughter was about 7,” de Firmian said. “I had been making boats for three decades, and had gotten into a small boats alliance. They were talking about a curriculum you could teach to kids, and I thought, ‘This sounds great.’”
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- GRINDING FOR GRADES: Quinn Brussel hammers a nail into his D.I.Y. skateboard.
The hands-on learning involved to craft a small boat worked wonders. Not only did it help his daughter (now 13) learn stronger math skills, but it also went over well with older kids, too.
“Next, I wanted to bring the program to the continuation schools,” de Firmian said. “But the kids there weren’t into it.”
Firstly, the kids didn’t have any place to put a boat—even a small one. When you’re living at your girlfriend’s or grandparent’s house—or couch surfing until graduation—a boat just seems like a silly luxury.
“One day, a kid [from Pacific Beach High School] got on a dolly—which we used to move the boats—and he tried to ride it,” the teacher said. “He got really fired up and all his classmates were all hooting. I thought, ‘They might be more stoked to build skateboards.’”
UC Davis—which had been funding the boat program—allowed de Firmian to switch from boats to skateboards. The rest is history.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- HANDS-ON, RIGHT ON : Riley Logan gets a hand from technical education teacher Chris de Firmian.
Since starting the program about a year and a half ago, the teacher has enabled about 100 students to create their own penny boards, cruisers, drop downs, and long boards.
The results are magical: Youth fortify their math skills while creating something personal and practical. Funding for building materials is now provided by the Actuarial Foundation, which aims to connect math learning with real-world situations.
“There is a huge, significant gain when it comes to learning through your hands,” de Firmian said. “Project-based, hands-on learning is so good for kids, especially those who don’t fit into that traditional learning mold.”
The teacher noted that acquisition of mathematical knowledge is measured by pre- and post-assessment tests targeting a dozen skateboard building math concepts—
all of which are found in the California High School Exit Exam.
In the first session of the Skateboard Building Program, the post- assessment test score average showed a 31 percent increase from the pre-program test score average. Attendance for the class also measured above average for the school.
According to de Firmian, boards turn out as unique as their makers. A previous high school class created decks emblazoned with artful foxes, undersea scenes, and even the tiny handprints of an infant child.
“There is a raw brilliance to youth; they’re going to create what they want and not care what anyone thinks of it,” de Firmian said. “It’s pretty fun to watch.”
Before students can receive their trucks and wheels, they must first complete a written folder of coursework. It is within those pages that de Firmian often catches glimpses of transformation.
“One girl wrote, ‘mixing math and new ideas is hard, but worth it,’” de Firmian said. “That really hit the nail on the head for me. I am not trying to get kids to memorize from a book. I want to teach them how to go out and get something that they want.”
Hayley Thomas is in awe of the power of math at email@example.com.