Our Senior Math Writer: Dr. Maria Droujkova

“5-Year-Olds Can Learn Calculus?” Yep. Senior Math Writer Dr. Maria Droujkova brings her decades of experience in making math accessible and fun and looking at math holistically to Cetati Studios.

In 2014 Cetati Studios’ Senior Math Writer Dr. Maria Droujkova, who has a Ph.D. in Mathematics Instruction from North Carolina State University, had a problem and it wasn’t a math problem. A key concept that she has spent decades cultivating was distilled in the headline of an article in the magazine The Atlantic in which she was quoted extensively: “5-Year-Olds Can Learn Calculus.”

“I was terrified when that article came out because it was originally named “Playful Mathematics for Children” or something. When I was doing the interview, I was very impressed by the job the journalist was doing getting all my rants down to actual concise points, so I was not concerned. Then I saw the new title—which someone else wrote—and I thought the internet would kill me because it’s such a controversial statement.”

Five years later Droujkova is still very much alive. She discovered that while readers’ initial reaction was disbelief, once they listened to her explain how she has worked to revolutionize the way math is taught, nearly all were on board.

Droujkova firmly believes that mathematics education should be “beautiful, meaningful, and fun,” descriptors not generally associated with math by a large number of people. To achieve that goal, she knows that math has to be taught differently. She has dedicated her professional life to making that vision become a reality.

Droujkova is a native Ukrainian and has lived in the United States since 1994 and now calls North Carolina home. She attended Tulane University in New Orleans and while her undergraduate studies were in Pure Mathematics, she earned her master’s degree in Applied Mathematics.

“I loved being a teacher’s assistant and some laughed at me because people usually don’t like that part, but I loved working with students and helping them. I started doing research on how to help them better and, long story short, I got my Ph.D. in Mathematics Education. So I basically changed careers from pure math to education because I discovered it was the most meaningful for me in this context.”

While at Tulane, Droujkova founded Natural Math. Natural Math is a company and a community of parents, teachers, and students that view mathematics in a more holistic way and who explore, create and share advanced, playful ways to learn. They offer books, online courses, coaching, games, do curriculum development and much more. It was one of the first online math websites and went live in 1996.

“It still looks like it was made in the 90’s, but I like it old-fashioned. We started to devise interesting concepts like advanced mathematics for young children and feature things like playful math, artistic math, and beautiful math.”

Cetati Studios’ CEO Brian Lovrin once hired Droujkova’s husband’s software company and had heard her speak about Natural Math. When Cetati Studios was about to launch, he invited her to join the team.

Droujkova was intrigued with the revolutionary approach of reaching and engaging children by pairing top flight mathematics professionals with top flight animation artists, but she didn’t just say yes automatically.

“I grilled him because I am very discerning about what projects I work on. I wanted to know that the people are serious about the quality of work and that there is some real innovation behind it. I had a whole checklist of things. I was impressed by both the math and creative teams pretty much right away. I found the values of Cetati Studies aligns really well with what I am doing. If you compare and contrast, I think the difference is that Natural Math is a small company and we think of what we do as extracurricular or enrichment, and I think Cetati’s goal is tied more to what people study in school, so more curricular. Cetati’s creations are definitely beautiful and meaningful and there is a lot of effort to make it joyful, to make it fun.”

Making it fun or, more specifically, helping learners make their own math, in their own ways that spark joy for each individual is what Droujkova has been doing for over two decades now. Her approach is best exemplified in the book “Moebius Noodles: Adventurous Math for the Playground” which she co-authored with Yelena McManaman. It’s filled with games and activities designed to “create rich, multi-sensory, deeply mathematical experiences for young children.”

“’Moebius Noodles’ came from my colleagues and I coming up with extracurricular activities and writing them with our own children and others and observing what worked and what didn’t. It’s designed to spark joy.”

The book is available through the Creative Commons license which means that anyone can download a PDF by naming their price—from zero to infinity dollars.

“In our community we all support one another and any good teacher will change an activity and adjust it to fit their own students’ needs. I like that Creative Commons both protects the author and allows for innovation. It also creates a lot of good will and the desire for people to want to help us. And it allows us to help many more people.”

Droujkova is keenly aware that for many people, math wasn’t just a subject they disliked in school, but something that traumatized them. She calls it “math anxiety.”

“For years I have attended a local Science Cafe at a restaurant where they invite different scientists to give short talks and then everyone asks questions. Now, when a biologist spoke, people asked questions about biology. When an astrophysicist spoke, people asked questions about that specific field. But when I spoke, people would raise their hand and say ‘When I was in second grade, I couldn’t understand multiplication and after that I never felt good about mathematics.’ I would say ‘I’m so sorry, that shouldn’t have happened to you, it’s not right’ and then I would ask them if they had a question. Often they would be lost reliving the trauma of it right then. I have seen people start breathing differently and seen adults actually start crying. I see math anxiety a lot.”

When she is not coming up with creative ways to make complex mathematics concepts easily digestible and friendly, Droujkova enjoys climbing, visual arts like origami, drawing and painting and also participates in a hobby with her hubby that she did back in Ukraine: mushroom hunting.

“You have to research them really well. We do it just for culinary purposes, not for the psychedelic stuff.”

Droujkova’s work with Cetati Studios is not her first go-round with creating an innovative mathematics game that engages students. Among numerous government, non-profit, and commercial projects, in 2013 she was the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant to develop an action-adventure, narrative-based, role-playing game called “Contemporary Studies of the Zombie Apocalypse: An Online Game to Teach Mathematical Thinking to Middle School Students.”

Her emphasis on playful ways to do serious work is not limited to children.

“I participated in a big science conference and joined a guild of science and math teachers in World of Warcraft.”  Can you imagine that?”

To learn more about Cetati Studios’ Senior Math Writer Dr. Maria Droujkova, please visit her website at www.naturalmath.com.