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Math professor uses pop culture to ease students’ anxieties about math

Greenwald_t.jpgBOONE—Math professor Sarah J. Greenwald has an interesting connection to an animated science fiction cartoon being released Nov. 27 on DVD.

“Futurama: Bender’s Big Score” includes a 25-minute math lecture by Greenwald as one of its added features.

Greenwald, who teaches at Appalachian State University, is known for using references from pop culture to teach math to non-math majors.

She’s in demand as an expert in using pop culture and math to help students overcome math anxieties, and gives invited lectures and talks about once a month at universities across the nation. Greenwald has been interviewed by NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” about the use of math in television shows and was filmed for the Canadian documentary series FANatical, which looked at the teaching of math and women in math.

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Appalachian State University math professor Sarah J. Greenwald poses with David X. Cohen, a writer of the science fiction cartoon “Futurama: Bender’s Big Score,” and Bender the robot, a character in the cartoon. The full-length cartoon will be released later this month on DVD. Greenwald, who uses pop culture references when she teaches math, was invited to record a math lecture that is included as a feature within the DVD. (Photo courtesy of Sarah J. Greenwald)

But it’s her connection to David X. Cohen, a former writer for “The Simpsons” animated comedy series, and cartoonist Matt Groening that landed her a short feature that’s included in the “Futurama” DVD.

“For years I have used the math references in ‘The Simpsons’ in my introduction to mathematics course,” Greenwald said. She also has published several articles on pop culture and math.

Cohen, who has degrees in physics and computer science, is responsible for many of the math references found in both comedies. He and other writers knew of Greenwald’s work. “They asked if I would tape a talk about mathematics for inclusion in the DVD,” she said.

Greenwald traveled to Los Angeles in March to film the segment at Fox Studios.

“It was a lot of fun,” Greenwald said of the experience. “It’s another way that you can show that mathematics isn’t just about formulas. It can be fun, and people who are interested in mathematics have a variety of career options.”

The “Futurama” writers also honored Greenwald by including her name within the main DVD movie as a “Greenwaldian Theorem” on a blackboard. The DVD movie will appear as episodes on the Comedy Central cable network in 2008.

Greenwald says she didn’t know what options were available for math majors when she was in college. A faculty advisor in her alma mater’s math department became her role model. “Before that time, I didn’t know anything about mathematicians,” she said.

That’s why Greenwald thinks it’s important for high school and college students to learn about the many opportunities available to math majors, particularly at a time when the United States is facing a shortage of mathematicians and scientists.

“There have been a number of studies of where people get their impressions about what scientists and mathematicians do, and if they don’t personally know one, their response is often based on pop culture,” Greenwald said. “If representations only show the mathematical genius, that’s what people expect all mathematicians to be. It’s important to look at representations of mathematicians and scientists that appear in pop culture, and critique them and balance those representations for our students so that they can recognize that there are many types of mathematicians.”

Greenwald admits that math was not an easy subject for her. “I never fit into the persona of a mathematician that I had imagined,” Greenwald says. “I’m not very quick in math, and that’s what I thought a mathematician was supposed to be. But I loved the process of problem solving, and I have never stopped enjoying that.”

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