Top 40 + math concepts = Musical mathematics

Video by Kyle Stevens

Zach Steffes “hearts” the area.

Since graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Education in 2011 with a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction and mathematics concentration, Steffes has been creating math-related musical parodies that supplement his classroom instruction and lectures.

His most recent parody, “Area Hearts,” was made into a music video by the UWM School of Education. The song teaches students that the area means “space that fills up something.” Steffes sings out the steps for determining the area of a rectangle and other shapes: by multiplying length times the width.  Lyrics were written to accompany the background track of the popular hit, “Stereo Hearts,” by Gym Class Heroes.

With the help of his wife Katrina, also a UWM graduate, Steffes has written, recorded and posted six math-related parodies to his You Tube account. The songs cover performers ranging from Katy Perry to Lupe Fiasco.

Steffes describes the almost accidental discovery process that unfolded as he developed one original, powerful idea into a suite of music videos. The proof of their success is found in a couple key results: his students’ math scores and compliments from viewers nationwide.

“This all started last spring when one morning I was teaching at a middle school here in Milwaukee, and in the car on the way to work I heard a song on the radio,” says Steffes.

The song stuck in his head, and as he was teaching, he realized one of the mathematical concepts he was focusing on that day –“perpendicular”–fit into that song. “Later on that day, I tried to write the rest of the song to fit the lyrics of the original song, with words that had to do with perpendicular lines.”

That song idea became “Perpendicular (sung to “E.T.” by Katy Perry),” which has received more than 4,500 hits on YouTube, along with many comments of support.

“It’s had a great effect on the students,” says Steffes. “The most rewarding experience I’ve had from my songs is that during a test a couple months ago, one of my students was trying to ask me what to do on a problem. Then, he said, ‘Oh wait, in your song you said the opposite reciprocal. So that must be it,’ and then he got it right on the test.”

Steffes credits his increased enthusiasm for using different strategies in the classroom to a number of professors he worked with while attending UWM. “They made me apply what I learned to what I was doing in the classroom and made difficult tasks seem more attainable by giving me the tools necessary to succeed,” says Steffes.

Students aren’t the only ones singing Steffes’ songs.

He has received emails from other teachers saying they’ve used the songs in their classrooms and that their students really find them useful in understanding math concepts. So do his YouTube fans. “It’s been really great to hear that kind of feedback from people in my profession who I don’t even know but who’ve seen my videos,” says Steffes.

Whenever he hears a song that sounds as though it could fit with a math concept, Steffes says he can’t wait to create a new parody, writing whenever he gets a chance.

These lyrics may be parodies of someone else’s music, but Steffes’ dancing is all original.

“I do get a lot of comments about my dance moves in my videos,” says Steffes.

“For the most part, I kind of make them up.”