A cold wind blew across the Monongahela River this morning and slammed into six high school boys standing on the Mon Wharf. Shivering in their coats and gloves, they contemplated Mount Washington.
Specifically, the circular outlook closest to St. Mary of the Mount.
Their task, on a chilly morning that was even chillier next to the water, was to determine the height of that outlook.
They could use their iPhone calculators to crunch their data, but to find the numbers, they had to use the ancient surveying method first seen in places like Egypt and China. That meant comparing the proportional relationship between similar triangles using poles and string.
The six students from West Mifflin Area and Upper St. Clair high schools laid out their measuring tape. They sketched their triangles and wrote down numbers on pieces of paper. At one point, a gust of wind blew one white sheet of paper into the river. One of the students used a pole to pull it out.
Surely, said Mike Kinney, a West Mifflin high school senior, surveyors in ancient China were never this cold.
Today, 31 high school students from nine schools in Western Pennsylvania were Downtown, doing math during Point Park University's first high school math symposium.
The idea of the symposium was partly to recruit potential future students into the school's math programs, said Matt Pascal, an assistant math professor at Point Park.
The other goal, he said, was to get young students doing math. That's what they did today, by practicing surveying at the Mon Wharf and also doing a scavenger hunt for geometric shapes Downtown.
The way to get more students interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- the so-called STEM fields of study -- is to start introducing them early on, even before they get to college, to the idea of those careers.
Getting students to like math -- and want to do more of it -- can be challenging, said Debbie Boughner, a math teacher at West Mifflin Area High School, who was at the Mon Wharf with four of her students.
"I just think they come with this preconceived notion that they can't do math," she said.
Kevin Coffman, a math teacher at Upper St. Clair also at the Mon Wharf with students, said the nice part about the surveying project is that students get to break out of just hearing about math in a classroom environment.
Today, he said, his students got "to do math."
Cold math, perhaps, but math nonetheless.