Math plus talent equals brainy fun

Tutors: High-powered mathematicians visit classrooms to share their love of numbers.

June 27, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Ben Cole says with all seriousness that in his three decades as a mathematician at the National Security Agency he has never once seen the much-talked-about mad scientists rumored to scurry about the place.

He says this even as he pulls on a sport coat he has worn since college, slips in a pocket protector so crammed full of pens it yanks his shirt pocket almost to his waist and then musses with his hair so that it sticks straight up off his head.

But what makes Cole and dozens of his colleagues most resemble mad scientists is their passion for math and science, and their habit of jumping around a classroom, arms flailing, to share that passion with local students and teachers.

Cole is one of more than 100 NSA employees who volunteer in Baltimore-area schools each week, out of concern that kids don't care about math anymore. They fear that 15 years from now, no one will be left for NSA to recruit. Even today, half of the math and physics graduate students in the country are foreigners and thus ineligible for NSA jobs, they say.

This program, offered to students during the school year and to teachers during the summer, does more than provide an introduction to the world of mathematics. It offers a rare window into some of the extraordinary talent - even genius - at work behind the gates of the nation's most secret spy agency.

In a fifth-grade math class at Riviera Beach Elementary School in Pasadena recently, NSA cryptologist Bill Sciannella is teaching the basics of cryptology - how to make and break codes. He puts a random paragraph about the Ravens on the projector. Because Sciannella is blind, someone reads the paragraph to him. Then, without a pause, he rattles off how many times each letter in the alphabet appears in the paragraph.

Even the teacher is amazed until an agency aide explains that Sciannella has a knack for remembering things like that. Though he won't admit it, his colleagues say he can remember every phone number ever given to him, and has the equivalent of a photographic memory that never seems to run out of room.

Like most of his colleagues, Cole is also modest about his talent. His ability is revealed in subtle ways.

On a recent day at Meade Middle School at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, Cole holds a roomful of Maryland's junior high school math teachers in awe as he runs from one prop to another, teaching anything but junior high math.

He's arguing that human behavior can be mapped with mathematical equations, and that math can prove that humans, for all their selfishness, will always cooperate with each other in the end.

Throughout his presentation, he illustrates his points with magic tricks, costumes and a deck of cards. The teachers are enraptured, laughing and learning.

"This presentation has just blown me away," said MiChelle Carpenter-Smith, a math teacher from Park School. "He knows so much. Most people I know who have been studying and teaching math for 30 years do not share this wealth of knowledge."

NSA's program of sending tutors like Cole and Sciannella into schools began in 1994, largely out of concern that the pool of future mathematicians is drying up. Unlike other corporate and government school tutors, NSA officials are aware that their tutors can demonstrate firsthand how math can be used in the real world.

"Math can be so boring," said NSA tutor Gail Nathanson, a former senior cryptological mathematician, as she wrapped up a class this week on graph interpretation. "When you give kids 10 multiplication tables when their reward is 10 more multiplication tables, that's awful. If you can do something a little different, show them how to use math for fun, that is really valuable."

Still, while their enthusiasm and lessons are clear, much of what they say among themselves is far over the heads of those they teach. At the recent weeklong session for teachers, several tutors engaged in animated discussions with one another in the hallways. One teacher brought up a folded piece of cardboard, a game tool from a previous discussion, and asked Cole to explain why it worked.

Cole said, "Well, see, you're conjugating the faces ..."

Upon hearing this, fellow NSA mathematician Rich Davis, who helped organize the speakers, cut across the room and added: "Yes, see the cycle structure is the same."

The teacher looked confused, but the two, and then a third tutor who jumped in, didn't notice.

At another teacher tutoring session last week, cryptological mathematician Jim Kraft, who was well into his explanation of Euclid's theory of prime numbers, suddenly gave the answer that solved a random equation that was thrown up on the board. Several teachers looked at each other.

"Oh," he said, almost sheepishly, "I happen to be able to do this in my head."

Kraft joined NSA four years ago, a relatively short amount of time compared to most of his colleagues, who have been at the agency for at least 20 years.

"By the very nature of working in secret, nobody knows for sure what people are doing there," he said. "I had no idea what to expect and I have worked with smart people. But these people are very, very, very smart. I mean they are really sharp."

And, he said, the added bonus is that they unconditionally share his love for math. As he told his students this week, the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras "used to kill people who didn't agree with him."

He paused, and added with a sigh: "But that was when math was really math."

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