March 31, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

In geometry class last week, freshmen at the Key School in Annapolis learned about surface area and volume by using oranges and mini-marshmallows.

And then they ate them.

They ate chocolate bars, too, but they weren't part of the lesson. As teacher Gail Kaplan explained, "I tell them they can bring in any candy they want. Otherwise, we won't have enough marshmallows."

The students used toothpicks to connect the marshmallows and form complex geometric shapes with up to 10 sides. Then they peeled the oranges to measure the fruit's surface to independently figure out the relationship between surface area and radius. (The surface area equals four times pi times the radius squared. Pi is approximately 3.14)

"If they just memorize the formula, they'll know it for a quiz and for the exam, but next year they'd have no clue," Kaplan said. "But now they'll remember that orange and they'll know that formula."

Kaplan's teaching techniques may seem unorthodox, but they have earned her praise from students and colleagues and a national honor. She learned this month that she was one of 196 teachers nationwide to win a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

An eight-year veteran of the Key School, Kaplan was the only math teacher in Maryland to win the award. Her school will receive $7,500 for the honor.

Marcella Yedid, who heads the school, said Kaplan's math classes exemplify how the school approaches learning.

"The blase attitude kids have at this point in school - you don't find it here because they are in a process of discovery," Yedid said.

In geometry, that means using food and computers and even miniature golf to learn fundamental theories. In the first week of the course, students play with blocks borrowed from the preschool next door to learn about angles.

For many of them, this is math like they've never seen. They're used to rote memorization, heavy textbooks and interminable classes. They're not used to fun.

In Kaplan's class Friday, Alex Fuller was making marshmallow taffy by kneading the sugary confection. "I haven't done this since second grade!" she said.

This was after she had peeled an orange and arranged the bits of peel in four circles to learn the surface area formula.

"I like it a lot," said Alex, 15, "because we learn math in an unconventional way and we can discuss the answers ourselves instead of being taught it in a lecture. We get a better understanding, and we're more likely to remember it."

The benefit of such teaching methods is evident in the number of Key students who enter math and science fields and the number who learn not to be afraid of math, Yedid said.

"Math is the subject everybody loves to hate," Kaplan said. "If you can change their attitude, that's 90 percent of the battle."

Kaplan, who has a doctorate in math, spent 20 years teaching at Long Island University, the Naval Academy and Washington College in Chestertown before she joined the Key School. She was frustrated by the high failure rate in college math courses and restrictions on how she could teach.

"I got tired of hearing faculty complain about how poorly students were prepared, and I decided I was going to be part of the solution," she said.

So far, she's thrilled with the results. Sometimes, though, her students become such skilled independent thinkers - answering problems and figuring out formulas on their own - that they don't need her.

"Part of the problem with this kind of teaching is I become unneeded," she joked. One of her goals, she said, is to teach her students how to teach math to themselves - even if they never again take math.

"More than anything else," she said, "math teaches us how to think logically, and that applies to everything in our lives."