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This CMU professor is making math classes less dull. Meet Live

Po-Shen Loh knows there are limits to Zoom instruction, so to make math classes more engaging, he created an interactive catalog of courses taught by some of the best math students in the country.

Po-Shen Loh. (Courtesy photo)
In 1999, Po-Shen Loh took home the silver medal as a member of the US International Math Olympiad. Two decades later, much of his life still revolves around math.

The team hasn’t been forgotten — if fact, as a coach, he’s led the Olympiad team to victory four times since 2014. At his day job as a professor of mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University, he researches the intersection of combinatorics, probability and computer science.

In between math competitions and classes at the university, Loh has spent a lot of time thinking of ways to make learning math less dull.  In 2020, when nearly every student was taking classes on Zoom, he observed this wasn’t a terribly engaging way to teach a subject many people already found difficult.

“I’ll just say it’s really bad,” Loh told Technical.ly. “Usually when people are trying to learn anything on a service that is highly non-interactive, it is just a bunch of people with black squares and a teacher in a tiny corner.”

So, what’s the alternative? If you’re a middle school student who needs instruction in algebra basics or geometry, know that Loh had you in mind when he created Live, a catalog of interactive classes often taught by teenage math whizzes.

It’s not interactive in the sense that a computer will be exchanging information with you. But in contrast with Kahn Academy or JensenMath, which features pre-recorded lessons, Live offers classes — well, live, via livestream. The benefit of this, Loh said, is that the instructors can engage with students and assist anyone not grasping the concepts being taught. Also, it’s designed to be a lot more fun.

A Live instructor. (Courtesy image)

“We have a new way of dynamically teaching where there’s two very smart, very interesting people doing improv comedy-style [instruction], and they turn math class into something that’s extremely lively,” Loh said. Classes are “guided by people who really know their stuff.”

Since 2021, when Live was founded, it’s hired around 100 advanced high school math students from inside and outside of Pittsburgh to teach Live Classes. The program also has an international student body, with students from countries such as China and Saudi Arabia signing up for courses.

Loh’s goal is to create courses kids won’t feel like they’re forced to just get through, but actually enjoy. This can happen, he said, by making it a point to ask students how they think math problems should be solved, instead of just telling them.

“We give the students a problem that they’ve never seen before and then we ask the students, ‘Do you have any ideas?’ and based on the students’ ideas, the job of the instructors is to create a new solution on the spot that uses the student’s ideas to solve the problem,” he said.

A Live instructor. (Courtesy image)

Additionally, Live builds on its unconventional method by recruiting professional actors and comedians to provide drama coaching to the instructors. An added bonus for the instructors is that teaching students younger than them helps them build on their own skills as they complete their education.

“They’re picking up skills, which are helping them win much, much more in life,”  Loh said.

Live’s introductory course cost around $400 for 20 hours of instruction, or $20 per hour. Check out its site for info on upcoming free demo courses.

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supportedby the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Carnegie Mellon University
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