While I was setting up The Math Doctors site a year ago, I ran across the following email I received in 1998 inviting people to become Math Doctors. It illustrates well the ethos of the team:
In the fall of 1994 the Math Forum at Swarthmore College (then the Geometry Forum) started an email program called “Ask Dr. Math”. The idea was to answer any and all math questions from K-12 students as fast and as well as we could. We began with an email address and a dozen math students who signed on to answer questions in shifts around the clock.
The project worked. In fact, it worked better than we imagined it would! Instead of ten questions a week, we now get over forty questions a day. We have answered thousands of questions, and more keep coming. The volume of questions has grown so large that even now that we have more doctors we still cannot keep up. Therefore, we are inviting qualified undergrads, retired teachers and practicing mathematicians to help us turn Dr. Math into one of the strongest mathematical resources on the internet.
As a Math Doctor you will have the opportunity to answer the math questions of K-12 students from all over the world. Questions may range from “How do you add really big numbers” to problems involving sphere packing and complex analysis. You will be able to answer some questions in five minutes. Some might take an hour. Some you will never solve. Some have never been solved by anyone. All will make you a better teacher and student of mathematics.
You will also be reminded of the reasons why you got into mathematics in the first place: because when you saw the Pythagorean Theorem it was beautiful, and when you saw the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, you thought it was fun. You’ll have not only the joy of recognizing that you can help those who are where you were 5, 10 or 30 years ago, but also the opportunity to help give them a love for mathematics.
All it takes to be a Math Doctor is a knowledge and love of mathematics, a knack for explaining mathematics, and access to a good browser like Netscape 3.0 or Microsoft Internet Explorer 2.1. If you meet these criteria we’d love to have you join us.
That is why I joined, and why I can’t stop!
Much has changed since then: The number of questions became hundreds per day, then gradually fell off again as the Internet became bigger and more options became available; but we remained special, not in our technology but in our people and our tradition. We got questions far beyond the original level (though the focus is still on K-12 or early college material), and the archive became huge, making us the great resource that had been hoped for. (We received almost a million questions over 23 years, a small percentage of which were published in the archive.) It is still fun to answer a wide variety of questions, and to converse both with students who have the drive to understand beyond what they are being taught, and with students or adults who need support and encouragement to learn the basics.
A year ago, having been cut loose from the original organization, we built this new little site in order to continue answering questions and drawing attention to our old answers. We hope that as more people discover us, we can continue meeting these needs into the future.
Next time, I’ll continue the first-anniversary focus on the past by showing some of the training materials that were used to define what “a knack for explaining mathematics” means. We care about doing it right!