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Professor writes lessons by the 'Numb3rs'
October 25, 2005
Some of the genius-level math featured on the TV program "Numb3rs" is being translated into exercises for kids by a math professor at the University of Montana.
Johnny Lott, a faculty member at UM for the past 31 years, leads a team that designs activities derived from the prime-time CBS program, which airs on Fridays. The lessons for teachers, students and parents are then placed on the "We All Use Math Every Day" Web site at www.cbs.com/primetime/numb3rs/ti/activities.shtml.
"It's kind of a hoot doing this," said Lott, who receives a synopsis of the math used in each program before it airs. Then, under a tight deadline, he and his team boil the complex problems into exercises that can be understood by average seventh- through 12th-graders.

Holding up the problems he helped develop from an episode titled "Assassins," Lott said, "If anyone had ever told me I would be doing this, I'd say they had lost their mind. But it's fun!"

The Web site is a collaboration among CBS, Texas Instruments and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics - the worlds' largest mathematics education organization. Lott is past president of the council, and he said the idea to collaborate with "Numb3rs" arose when his organization held a meeting last spring in Anaheim, Calif., that was attended by the stars and producers of the program.

"Numb3rs" is about an FBI agent who recruits his mathematical genius brother to help the government solve challenging crimes. All the math used in the program is based on real FBI cases.

Lott's three-member team designs the mathematical problems derived from "Numb3rs." The team includes Lott; Terry Souhrada, a retired UM faculty member who still works on projects for the UM math department; and Beth Glassman, a high school teacher from Texas. They are assisted by Karen Longhart, a teacher at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, who acts as a liaison among the council, Texas Instruments and CBS.

"Karen worked here with me for one year in the early 1990s," Lott said. "We worked on the SIMMS project - the Systemic Initiative for Montana Mathematical Science. This is a whole high school curriculum, so we aren't exactly novices at writing for kids."

Lott said three teams nationally are designing "Numb3rs" content for the Web site. The other two teams are based in Maryland and Texas. Additional mathematical advisers are at the University of Minnesota and at Williams College.

"I don't think any of us knew what we were getting into," Lott says. "This medium is stressful. It winds up taking up a lot of nights. But we are obligated for the next year, and it's exciting. We do get a small stipend, but we figure it comes out to something like $10 per hour."

But he says the work is its own reward. For the "Assassin" episode, his group created an exercise in which students break secret codes.

Lott said he got hooked on "Numb3rs" last season. "I thought, 'This is fun. NCTM ought to do something with it,'" he said, "and here we are."

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