Matt Engle never wanted to be a teacher. In fact, he remembers telling people that teaching was the last career he would ever choose—but God had different plans. He was at a turning point during his sophomore year of college when a friend suggested he participate in a student mission program in the Republic of Palau, a small island country in the western Pacific Ocean. Engle volunteered as an eighth grade teacher, a year-long experience that planted seeds for his future.
“At the end of the year, three of my students, independently of each other, came to me and told me that they used to hate math but after me teaching them they loved it and actually relate to it now!” Engle says. With this confidence boost, he changed his major to math, knowing that he could take a subject that students often hate and make it enjoyable. Now in his ninth year of teaching, Engle instructs Algebra I, Algebra II, Pre-calculus, and Calculus at Monterey Bay Academy in La Selva Beach, California.
Engle considers himself a “math convert.” He says, “I saw it as black and white and very dry. But once I changed my major to math, started teaching it, and studying it on my own in my free time, I see it completely differently. It is a very human, relatable, and creative subject. It is constantly evolving and every single person has something to get from it.”
Engle has often felt isolated in his teaching career. In order to network with others and continue learning, he began participating in online math forums and attending math and/or teacher gatherings in the Silicon Valley. It was at one of these events that he met Cindy Lawrence, the executive director of the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) in New York City, the only math museum in North America. She told Engle about the museum’s mission—to bring a real and enjoyable mathematics experience to kids and adults —and about the prestigious Rosenthal Prize for Innovation in Math Teaching. The Rosenthal Prize was named for Saul Rosenthal, president of investment firm Oxford Lane Capital Corp. and long-time supporter of math education. The contest was established in 2012 to recognize and promote distinguished hands-on math teaching. Also included in the prize package is a $25,000 cash award.
Engle entered the contest with his creative math lesson plan called Bringing Similarity Into Light: Experiencing Similarity and Dilations Using Shadows. According to a press release by MoMath, the lesson examines the shadows of shapes to explore concepts such as ratio, dilation, and proportionality in triangles.
Engle submitted his initial application in May 2017, expecting to hear if he was a finalist by July. When he didn’t hear back, he assumed he hadn’t been chosen. Imagine his surprise when he received a reminder email in September to have all of his material together for submission by the end of the month! He had missed the email notifying him that he was a finalist. Thankfully, he easily pulled the lesson details together and made the deadline—barely. He found out he had won in December 2017.
Rosenthal and Lawrence presented Engle his award during a special ceremony on February 7, 2018 at MoMath in New York City. In an official statement, Lawrence said, “MoMath is thrilled to present Matt Engle with the Rosenthal Prize for his dedication to mathematics and his creative and innovative math lesson. We are delighted that over six years, we have been able to build a strong network of math teachers across the country through this competition and have empowered a total of 18 teachers to continue to provide hands-on math experiences that make learning fun and compelling for students.”
What do Engle’s students think of his prize? He says, “I’ve had many students come up to me and tell me how excited they are for me, and some have reiterated how much they like my classes. I’m especially thankful for the students who helped me film teaching the lesson for my final submission; those kids were especially excited! Overall, they just think it’s really cool.”
The lesson plan was not only successful because it won a prestigious award, but because as Engle shares, “It did exactly what I intend my favorite lessons to do: It’s accessible to all students (we say low-threshold, high-ceiling); it’s engaging and relatable; it builds a framework to be used in many future concepts; it gets them thinking more deeply about math; it gets them thinking beyond math.”
He continues: “Everyone can agree that math classes are meant to grow students in their problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Today many people call these ways of thinking that we grow in habits of mind. I realized that a math classroom needs to be structured to grow these, and be much more than just rote memorization and practice exercises. Students must be given the opportunity to actually problem solve regularly. They should realize that the most important thing to take from their math classes are the habits of mind that result from problem-solving, and my classroom is built around this idea. I love exploring and learning new things with my students every day!”