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Music or math: why not both?

May 16, 2011

On paper, Carole Greenes is a mathematician. In real life, she’s a mathematician disguised as a singing Sherlock Holmes.

It’s the best way she’s found to merge her professional life as a math educator, and one of the loves of her life, musical theater: to write musical mysteries that hinge on math.

For such accomplishments, and many more, Greenes, ASU’s associate vice provost for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and professor of mathematics education, has received the 2011 Ross Taylor/Glenn Gilbert National Leadership Award from the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics.

Greenes (pronounced GREEN-ess) never aspired to being a professor of math education. Her first ambition was to be either a professional violinist or pianist, but after she shook the hand of the stellar Van Cliburn, she realized it probably wouldn’t be the piano.

“Van Cliburn was the musician in residence when I was in the Junior Symphony at the Interlochen, Michigan, summer National Music Camp, when I was 12. He directed the orchestra and after I had challenged and was moved up to the second seat in the first violin section, Van Cliburn congratulated me and shook my hand vigorously with his enormous hand. That’s when I realized that my hands were too small for piano. But I didn’t give up on the dream of being a pianist.”

At the University of Michigan, she discovered musical theater, and earned a bachelor’s degree in theater arts and English, with a minor in music.

Greenes and her husband Bob, whom she met at age 15 (she was impressed by his Chevy Bel Air convertible) moved to Boston and she taught elementary school for two years and then middle school.

“While I was teaching middle school, the district implemented the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG) New Math. Since, from my student teaching where the lab school at the University of Michigan was testing the SMSG program, I knew about associativity, commutativity, the identity element and inverses, the school district decided I would be a great candidate as district math leader and sent me back to university, all expenses paid, to become, officially, a secondary level math teacher with a master’s degree.”

That led to her joining a funded geometry project and enrolling in the doctoral program at Boston University.

“To get additional funds while a doctoral student, I tutored the football team,” Greenes said. “They paid me $5 an hour per person and I taught five players at a time. They got A’s and B’s in all of their math courses, and the provost for athletics was thrilled.”

When she started teaching college classes as a doctoral student, Greenes, who had skipped third grade and did her undergraduate study on a fast track, discovered that she was teaching some of the courses she was supposed to be taking.

Though universities generally don’t hire their own doctoral graduates to teach, Boston University made an exception with Greenes, and she stayed there for 37 years. She jokes, “They didn’t want to let me go because the football players I was tutoring were getting As and Bs in math.”

Greenes said she was encouraged to follow math as a career by “two fabulous professors at Boston University who told me, ‘You are talented in math. You have a great future. There are not many women in the field.’”

As her academic life unfolded at Boston University, she sought ways to get students and the public enthusiastic about math.

“I decided you can get people more excited about math through drama and music, so I started writing these mathematical musical mysteries. I change the words to popular songs, and recruit local math teachers and students to participate with me in their presentations.” 

Her group performed for a “family math night out” for the town of Melrose, Massachusetts. “It was so popular we started to do these all over the country. I did that for many years,” Greenes said.
Her musical, “One if by Land, Two if by Sea,” about math in U.S. history, that she co-wrote with Carol Findell, a math professor at Boston University, was performed on a major anniversary in the city of Boston, in Fanueil Hall, featuring a large cast of mathematics professors and teachers from across North America.

At ASU, Greenes runs two programs: the National Science Foundation-funded “Prime the Pipeline Project: Putting Knowledge to Work,” and “STEM in the Middle,” a project sponsored by the Helios Education Foundation.

“In Prime the Pipeline, high school students collaborate with secondary-level math teachers who want to beef up their knowledge of the sciences, and science teachers who want to know more math. The students are the experts in the technology,” Greenes said. The students and teachers commit to spending after-school time for nine weeks each semester and four hours a day for two weeks in the summer working in “scientific villages” on a variety of projects such as alternative energy, biotechnology and engineering design. Leading the villages are scientists from ASU, Chandler Gilbert Community College, and various technology companies, including Motorola and Intel.

“The teachers are learning exciting ways to get kids excited about STEM subjects,” Greenes said. “A lot of the students come from families where no one has ever gone to college.”

The classes are held at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, which helps ease fears for some of the students. “They see that they are able to compete with peers from other high schools, get around a college campus without getting lost, and are able to communicate and understand professors. College is less intimidating. Most important, they realize that they are college capable.”

STEM in the Middle brings 60 middle-school students to ASU for seven Saturdays, with high school and ASU students serving as mentors.

Greenes said that even younger children can learn challenging math. She currently works with two 6-year-old boys every other Wednesday evening in her office, teaching them concepts that would seem to be way beyond their grasp. 

She believes that all students could benefit from such concentrated periods of study, such as that in Prime the Pipeline and STEM in the Middle. “The siloization of curricula and the limited time for investigation and communication in schools often results in students ill prepared for higher education,” she said.

“By contrast, engaging students in explorations that are challenging, mirror the workplace, require application of concepts from science and mathematics and the use of a variety of technologies for their solutions, and have sufficient time for wrestling with important ideas, will lead to success with the subjects, enhanced interest in the fields, and a stronger STEM pipeline to college.”

Greenes recently developed a program that will prepare students from pre-kindergarten to high school to succeed in algebra, a subject where there is currently a high failure rate.

Perhaps the new program includes a mystery and some music. It would all add up for Greenes.