Mel Corlija, adjunct professor of business, likes solving puzzles.

Mental math

Third in a series of stories about Columbia College innovations in the sciences and science teaching

Mel Corlija, adjunct professor of business, likes solving puzzles.

Like how to convince a Serbian customs to let him check his overweight luggage on a flight back to the U.S. without having to pay the $175 "penalty." Or something less expensive, like solving the daily crossword or Sudoku puzzle.

Corlija, a self-proclaimed pencil-game junkie, has developed a way to merge his two passions of teaching with pencil games into a unique educational tool aimed at helping Americans' declining math and reasoning skills. In an age of increasing specialization where swift, abstract reasoning is essential to a good career, Corlija believes a mental tune-up is in order.

Dinar, 2:30 a.m. brainstorms and 9-ball
Corlija's solutions bubble up from unexpected places. At the airport, he and his friend figured out that the customs official liked coffee. So with a wink, a nod and enough dinar for two large cups of coffee firmly planted in the official's hand, Corlija’s luggage was on the conveyer belt. Or the 2:30 a.m. brainstorm that propelled Corlija out of bed to scribble down an idea that became "Mental Math," a math reasoning puzzle now appearing daily in the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune.

Corlija was then teaching a Columbia College business communication class emphasizing students’ abilities to articulate ideas in the workplace. "A company will not pay you $60,000 to shuffle papers," he says. "They pay you for your ideas, and I really stressed that.” As part of the class’ final presentation, Corlija had his students create an original, fundable idea or craft an improvement to an existing idea or product. This is not a standard business plan, more a product plan, something tangible for investors, he stressed. “My goal was to have students convincingly articulate to the rest of the class why their idea or product improvement would make society better off."

But, then Corlija says, he thought the same maxim applied to him.

Enter the 2:30 a.m. brainstorm.

That day, Corlija met former MBA student David Vlachynsky '09, originally from the Czech Republic, to play pool. Vlachynsky had come to the United States in 2006 and fell in love with Columbia, Mo., and its small town charm, affordable cost of living and low-stress lifestyle. Vlachynsky is now an instructional technician and audiovisual engineer with the college's Technology Services department.

Between games of 9-ball -- balls 1 through 9 are set up in a diamond pattern and the balls are pocketed in sequence -- Corlija scribbled an idea on napkins about a game with progressively harder math equations. Vlachynsky, who has an engineering background, immediately saw the educational and profit potential and the two Columbia College men began plotting.

An inexpensive, handheld video device would be ideal, they reasoned. In short order, the two began collaborating with a third partner, Lukas Vaculik, a hardware and software design engineer living in the Czech Republic. In the six intervening months, Vlachynsky has concentrated on product design, Vaculik on the software, and the partners plan to file a patent soon. They hope to introduce the device by the end of 2009.

In the meantime, Corlija walked right into the office of Jim Robertson, Columbia Daily Tribune managing editor, to pitch the idea of an educational puzzle. To Corlija's great surprise, Robertson didn’t throw him out and agreed to publish the puzzle. The equations began running in the paper in June 2009.

The partners – who take turns speaking, Corlija quickly and with animation, Vlachynsky patiently, as befitting an engineer – say that "Mental Math" and the as-yet unnamed educational device have enormous potential for both teachers and students at virtually all educational levels and that it's a perfect fit with a game-addicted society.

For example, a teacher recently wrote the Trib, “I just want to thank you for running the new Mental Math problem in each day’s paper … I’ve added that to my repertoire of doing the Sudoku every day and working the crossword every day. I’m going to encourage students I teach to use this. I teach in a middle school, and I’m going to take these to work with me during summer school for the kids to solve and continue to do it in the next school year.”

This is exactly what the partners want to hear. "Our hope is that cognitive ability, when presented properly, will make a comeback," Corlija says. "Basic math skills have largely been lost. I see it on a regular basis. There are now two or three generations that do not know how to solve basic equations.”

Numbers are not abstractions
Corlija says that people forget numbers are not abstract but often very tangible things -- a car payment, an insurance premium, a payroll deduction, a test answer – for which mental calculation is essential. "You don't have all week in real life or in professional-level tests like the MCAT or LSAT to solve a problem," he says. "In those tests, you have maybe 90 seconds. To do well on tests, being able to keep cognitive patterns in your head has to become second nature."
Let's look at a typical "Mental Math" puzzle:

Mental Math puzzle

If, like some of us, you avoided math like the plague, how do you go about figuring out the answer?

The order of operations dictates that you work left to right and that multiplication and division always comes before addition and subtraction, but after removing parenthesis and simplifying exponents.

Got it?

Corlija there's an easy way to keep this straight: “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”, a mnemonic device that stands for the order of “parentheses, exponents, multiply, divide, add, subtract.”

Forget mom's advice
Corlija, originally from the St. Louis area, graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a degree in nuclear medicine. He then worked as a research chemist for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs but says he would go home and read finance magazines, not magazines in his field. "I realized I was passionate about business and finance, not nuclear chemistry. So one day I said to myself, 'If this is what you are interested in, this is what you should do!’ "

Which he did, earning an MBA from William Woods University in 1999. In the meantime, he had switched day jobs and was working as an analytical chemist for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources testing drinking water. He received his master's degree in personal financial planning from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2006.

Diane Schuyler, then teaching for the college, encouraged Corlija to try teaching as an adjunct in 2006. Corlija says he immediately knew that teaching was what he was born to do.

"You have to do what you love," says Corlija. "You know the advice your mother, other people tell you, to go study something practical, something in demand? Forget it. Study something you love, if you don’t love what you do you’ll never be good at it. Do something that makes you happy … In life, you have to go out there and try something different. Take a risk."


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Anonymous said...

Paying off a customs official to allow you to get your overweight baggage on the plane might be an example of solving puzzles, but I think it's more appropriately called bribery.

An excellent skill to teach future business leaders...

Sanford said...

As an adjunct professor of math in a school of business, I prefer to think of stressing the basic principles and rules of logic. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.

Chelsea said...

I think Mel definitely found his niche with teaching. I have taken his macroeconomics class and was very impressed with his teaching style. He made economics, which most people wrinkle their nose at the thought of, very interesting and even entertaining with great stories, analogies, presentations, and he even brought candy for the class on Halloween.