Case Study #5 : Math Enrichment Resource Center (MERC)

St. Paul, Minnesota

Bob Hazen is used to the puzzled stares he gets when he tells people he teaches algebra and calculus to six-year-olds. As a private-practice educator, Hazen uses a methodology called Mortensen Math, which incorporates music, colored blocks, and higher concepts like algebra and calculus to teach elementary mathematics in a way that is fun and easy to grasp.

Hazen first came across Mortensen Math in 1989 when he received a flyer in his school mailbox promoting an upcoming seminar on the method. Intrigued by the claims the company made about teaching advanced mathematical concepts to young children, Hazen brought his own five-year old son to the Saturday seminar hoping some of Mortensen Math's teaching methods would be demonstrated.

"Sure enough, Jerry Mortensen was the presenter and 45 minutes later, [my son] Brandon was doing algebraic factoring. I was so impressed, I purchased the materials myself and began using them in my classroom."9

Soon after, Hazen, who also teaches junior-high school math full-time in the St. Paul Public Schools, turned his enthusiasm for the methodology into a business. He established the Math Enrichment Resource Center (MERC) to provide teacher training and student instruction using Mortensen Math on a contract basis.

Through MERC, Hazen has provided services under contract to private schools, home-schooling parent groups, charter schools, and community centers in the Twin Cities area. Under a pilot project with the St. Paul Public Schools, Hazen directed a year-long mathematics program at the Chelsea Heights Elementary School. There, he provided both instruction and teacher training for two first-grade classrooms. Funding for the project was provided for one year by a private donor. Hazen hopes to raise additional funds to continue the work at Chelsea.

"There's a growing awareness in my field of mathematics education that what we're doing isn't good enough. It's a real exciting time to be a math teacher-there's an openness to trying new things that have been shown to be effective," says Hazen.

"One appeal of private practice is having more control over what I'm doing. I can spend my time dealing with issues and concerns that make a difference, to provide people with the tools and training that I know are going to help them succeed. I don't always feel that way with the current situation I'm in."

Hazen describes many of the students he works with as having been "contaminated with bad ideas and bad methods about what math is." As a result, he sees students--and teachers--who are afraid of numbers, who are reluctant to tackle mathematical problems.

At the secondary-school level, says Hazen, "I'm getting them six or seven years after they've been contaminated. What I'm so excited about is getting them right in the beginning, by going down into the first grade, whether I'm dealing with students or teacher training. I think the timing is right to elevate and broaden how elementary math is taught while still achieving a mastery of basic arithmetic."