Math club in Mt. Lebanon library pushes students to think outside the cube

| Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

After struggling to find an after-school program for his daughter, a gifted fourth-grader with a flair for mathematics, Jie Feng took matters into his own hands.

He started setting aside time to teach her math lessons on weekends, when he returns to his family in Cleveland after spending the work week as a chemical engineer in the Pittsburgh area.

“They never know how much potential they have,” Feng said of students who lack adequate education programs outside school.

Feng, 40, of Pleasant Hills has sought to share his teaching method. He develops math lessons for an after-school program that he and a colleague volunteer to organize in the Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

The program that started earlier this year is considered challenging, and is intended for gifted and talented students in grades 4 to 7.

The lessons, which emphasize logic and organizational skills, are designed to help students better understand math principles, largely by encouraging them to think creatively to solve problems. Manageable amounts of homework are assigned each week, from multiplication to geometry problems.

“You just practice,” said the other instructor, Lei Hong, 39, of Sheraden, who works as a chemical engineer.

Beyond that, the program known as the L and J Math Club is meant to enrich skills.

“It's not just rote learning,” said library director Cynthia Richey. Though the L and J club is named for the two instructors, it could be short for laughter and joy “because math is fun,” she said.

Students in the United States long have lagged behind their peers abroad in academic performance, particularly in math.

In a 2012 international standardized test, 15- and 16-year-old participants in the United States ranked in the bottom half in math.

In China — which is where the two instructors came from — after-school programs abound amid stiffer academic competition, they said.

The current session of the after-school program is scheduled to end May 14, but the two have expressed interest in offering another in summer.

They believe the library is a good location for their program, although the class size has remained small.

Beyond using fliers and social media, they are seeking other ways to draw more participants.

Kaloyan Stefanov, a fourth-grader in Hoover Elementary in Mt. Lebanon, concentrated during a recent L and J session on his homework: finding the elusive perimeter of a particular rectangle.

“It's a way for him to explore math … outside the books,” said his mother, Maria. She said her son noticed a flier about the after-school program in the library.

“The school curriculum … it's just easy for him,” she said.

That view is shared by Caroline Kennedey, a fifth-grader in Mt. Lebanon's Lincoln Elementary who said she's noticed an improvement in her problem-solving skills since joining the program.

“You feel like you're at the top of your class,” she said.

Jake Flannick is a freelance writer.

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