Mathematicians are used to seeking solutions, although few probably find them where Penn State College of Education faculty member Ricardo Martinez does.

While some who love numbers might see certain poetry in math, the assistant professor of education (math education) believes it’s the other way around.

“It’s mathematical poetic knowledge,” he said. “If you look at poetry, if you’re a poet, if you like poetry, you know it is a profoundly intimate process. Poetry can be very structured or chaotic, and in truth, math has the same multiplicity of poetry. Yet we tend only to experience structured, mechanical modes of mathematics. So why can’t math be more like poetry, a reflective and personal experience?”

Martinez is in the midst of researching mathematical poetical knowledge and plans to publish his findings later this year.

But to him, the work is part of a larger goal — to make a difference in the lives of young people by showing them math does not have to be disconnected from our own humanity, a belief shaped by a formative experience the bilingual Martinez had when he was a teen.

“I want to change math education because of the harm it did to me,” he said. “Yes, math kept me in school. Yes, if it weren’t for one teacher, who was my math teacher, who said I’m good in math, I probably would have dropped out and never went to college. But earlier, before that instance, I had already internalized ‘If you speak Spanish, you’re dumb’ and it was math that made it easier for me to not care about or acknowledge my own culture.

“I went to college, and I was like ‘We don’t need to talk about social issues, nothing else matters. Math is that pure, objective logic. Math is perfect, blah, blah, blah,’” Martinez said. “I was that individual, and I didn’t like myself then because I wasn’t really a person, I was in essence a calculator. … That’s why a lot of my work now really focuses on how do we create these mathematical experiences that really make us feel something good? Let’s make math connected to each individual’s identity and celebrate the multiplicity of identity.”

To do this, Martinez has tried to turn learning math into an experience rather than traditional lectures and equation solving. Martinez said that being boxed in as mechanical and purely logical has turned some people off — not to what math is, but what they perceive it to be.

His objective is to show math can be more than that, which, he said, will make students less likely to be reflexively apprehensive toward it.

“Mathematics is this multisensory experience with numbers,” Martinez said. “As I work with teachers and future teachers, I work to see if they can create such an experience. Creating this experience sometimes begins with yourself. Are you happy with yourself, mathematics, and the world? And if not, what are you doing to transform that? … A lot of people go into that realm of ‘Math is not for me. I’m not good at it. Done.’ Think of what that does to your identity. That fractures your identity because we cannot ignore the fact that everyone has a mathematical identity. If it’s fractured, that means your whole identity is fractured, and you struggle to be complete as a person. A lot of work in terms of healing, in terms of identity, it tends to forget the math part or tends to forget how math is connected to the whole self.”

By thinking of something seen by most as purely objective in this way, Martinez is aware that mindset makes him different than most of his contemporaries.

But he knows, like with any systemic change, while the pace of progress is often slow, there is a path forward, one that he hopes will result in many individual changes adding up over time to a lasting improvement of math education.