nothing more than a laptop computer and a friend's company
to host a web site, self-proclaimed math nerd Ted Mahavier
('95 Ph.D.) and his colleague Valerio De Angelis began
responding to e-mail math questions from home in 1996.
Mahavier, an associate professor of mathematics at Lamar University
in Beaumont, and De Angelis, an assistant professor of mathematics
at Xavier University of Louisiana, work with an international team
of volunteers to answer more than 1,500 math questions each month
through their web site, mathnerds.com.
However, the mathematicians, who donate their services free of charge,
don't supply the final answers. Instead, they provide hints
and references, teaching people to overcome their fears and solve
their own math problems.
"It's no mystery that too many people have math phobia or math
anxiety," says De Angelis. "It would be great if we could
change that even in a small number of people."
Mahavier is well acquainted with the way people react to mathematics.
"Math is a serious subject that a lot of people — especially
students — think is a four-letter word," he says. "We
want to help people with math and show students it can be a very
rewarding subject that can lead to a fantastic career."
love of math was fostered at UNT. He was influenced here by an
inquiry-based method of teaching, known as the Moore method,
in which students are encouraged to discover much of the mathematical
content of a course by following a carefully crafted sequence
says by preparing students in this manner, the instructor assures
that they possess a deeper understanding of the material.
Students can "do" mathematics on their own as opposed
to merely absorbing mathematical concepts that they were led
"Many of the faculty at UNT during my graduate-school
years were, and
still are, proponents of this method," Mahavier says.
He says the impact of UNT professors such as John Neuberger,
John Ed Allen, Paul Lewis and Dan Mauldin and their philosophy
As he entered the teaching profession, Mahavier shared his enthusiasm
for math and his commitment to the philosophy espoused by his
teachers with his own students — in the classroom and on
History of the nerds
Mahavier and De Angelis worked together at Nicholls State University.
At that time, they began managing a mathematics web site from
Additional mathematicians volunteered to help in 1998.
"From the moment we offered help on the web, we had more work than
we could possibly do and we enlisted a few friends to help answer
the questions," Mahavier says.
During the early development of the site, Mahavier and De Angelis
realized that answering questions without concern for what students
might do with the answers involved
a certain risk.
"Imagine a student submitting an interesting problem they were
working on related to their doctorate," says Mahavier. "While
helping them, we found nice results and published this elsewhere.
Would the student have a case against us?"
Because of legal concerns like this, the mathematicians felt the
need to form a legal entity to protect their web site, so they
created a limited liability corporation.
"Because we are nerds, and not business people, we took the path
of least expense," says Mahavier.
With legal considerations settled, the group began to focus on
funding and redesigning the site and recruiting more volunteers
Mahavier received partial support from the Center for the Advancement
of Teaching at Xavier University of Louisiana. The site is currently
supported by funding from Lamar University. It now includes an
archive of approximately 30,000 questions; a section of helpful
exchanges between math experts and clients; a section devoted to
discovery-based methods of solving math problems; and links to
a host of other mathematical sites.
No spoon feeding
exemplifies the "math nerd" philosophy more than
a quote by E.M. Forster found on the web site: "Spoon feeding,
in the long run, teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon."
"Our discovery-based approach enhances math education by guiding
students through concepts so they can learn to find answers on
their own," Mahavier says. "If students are really
willing to work and use the material, they will be successful
at this technique."
De Angelis agrees. "There's no learning without a
degree of initiative on the part of the student," he says.
He should know. De Angelis and the other team members are established
mathematicians or tenured professors at well-known universities.
He says they offer their expertise as a way to share their enthusiasm
Mathnerds.com clients choose a category, ranging from kindergarten level through
graduate-level courses, then complete a form and submit a question.
A mathnerds.com team member receives the question and can either
answer it within 48 hours or move it to the general queue for others
The experts respond to questions differently. Allen Stenger, a
longtime volunteer and retired computer programmer, says he responds
to nearly everything he receives as well as questions from the
"After a lengthy exchange with a client, it's gratifying to
see an understanding growing through their work with our hints,"
James Ochoa ('96 Ph.D.), an assistant professor of
mathematics at Hardin Simmons University, began volunteering in
"I try to figure out key parts to understanding the problem," he
says. "Then I send the client a hint. A lot of people are
appreciative for the help and say thanks for the hint, but a few
grumble because I don't give them the answer."
Inquiring minds who want to learn how the process works can follow
the "Best" link on the site, which includes selected
problems and the hints given to solve them.
"These are the nicest and most interesting questions we've
received over the years," De Angelis says.
For example, readers can discover how to find a false coin
in a certain number of weighings or how to determine the shortest
road required to connect a number of towns. And titles such as
"The Case of the Missing Mangos" and "The Notorious Jumping
Function of Continuum County" prove that math — or
at least mathematicians — can be fun.
signing off the web site, many people comment about their visit
in the "Guestbook" section.
"We currently have more than 55 pages of positive user feedback
in our guestbook," says Mahavier. "People tell us
they love the site. Others say it's helped them learn about
logarithms and progressions."
One of Mahavier's favorite responses came from a client in
India: "None of my teachers or friends is willing to help
me (with math problems) unless and until they get some material
gains out of that help, but you have been helping me throughout.
Thanks a lot, sir."
Mahavier says he likes it when clients say, "Thanks. Now
De Angelis is gratified when clients overcome their fear of math.
Since the success of mathnerds.com,
Mahavier has set his sights on developing other web sites such
as chemnerd.com or englnerd.com.
it," he says, "there's a nerd for it."
Excerpt from 'Rock Star Shuffle' problem
concert starts in 17 minutes and four guys must all
cross a bridge to get there. All four men begin on
the same side of the bridge. You must help them across
to the other side. It is night. There is one flashlight.
A maximum of two people can cross at one time. Any
party who crosses (either one or two people) must have
the flashlight with them. The flashlight must be walked
back and forth. It cannot be thrown, etc. Each person
walks at a different speed. A pair must walk together
at the rate of the slower man's pace. Bono takes 1
minute to cross; Edge, 2 minutes; Adam, 5 minutes;
and Larry, 10 minutes. For example, if Bono and Larry
walk across first, 10 minutes have elapsed when they
get to the other side of the bridge. If Larry then
returns with the flashlight, a total of 20 minutes
have passed and you have failed the mission. Note:
There are two known answers to this problem.
This kind of problem is worked by trial and error,
so the intellectual challenge is to think of ways
to cut down
the number of trials. Try this: Without worrying about
who goes when, think about the number of trips that might
be needed and what the time of each trip might be. For
example, any trip including Larry is a 10-minute trip,
so there is at least one 10-minute trip.
De Angelis and Allen Stenger
For more, see www.mathnerds.com/best/rockstar/hint1.asp.