Rare Course Lets Five Top Students Learn Beyond Normal Math Curriculum

Photo by Catherine Dooley.

David Garlock has a desk in the math department office, but he barely ever uses it. Instead, Garlock, a retired tax lawyer, comes to GDS only for seventh period and meets his five students in room 101 to discuss number theory.

GDS is offering Garlock’s course in number theory this semester for the first time since 2014. The class, one of the smallest that is currently running, was not listed in the 2021-22 Course of Study or made available for all students to apply. Three members of the class told the Bit they are enjoying its uniquely laid-back, collaborative environment. 

Senior Jon Ergun said he had heard rumblings about a possible number theory course before it was announced last spring. “There were rumors of it going around with a lot of people who are in higher levels of math,” he said.

The official announcement of the class came on April 7 in an email from Math Department Chair Lee Goldman to four potential Number Theory students who had exhausted or were on track to exhaust GDS’ math curriculum.

“In two prior cases when we have had several students in this situation at the same time,” Goldman wrote in the email, which was shared with the Bit, “we have been able to bring a teacher on to campus to teach one section of Number Theory. This teacher is willing to do this again this fall.”

Sophomore Max Froomkin, Ergun and fellow seniors Julie Steele, Ben Joseph and Julien Berman all signed up for the class.

Garlock, who used to work at the accounting firm Ernst & Young, designed original number theory course materials and posted them online in the 1990s. “I took a number theory course when I was in high school, and I loved it,” Garlock said in an interview with the Bit. “And when online learning became a thing in the ’90s, I thought that this would be a way to make number theory available to lots of different high school students.”

According to Garlock, number theory is the study of whole numbers, particularly prime numbers, and their relationships. “It’s an area of pure mathematics,” he explained, “meaning that it’s not like calculus or differential equations that can be used by engineers.”

Although the online course never took off among independent students as Garlock had hoped, his friend Andy Lipps, a GDS math and history teacher, asked Garlock to teach the course at GDS in 2009. He taught it again in 2014 and has returned after another seven years to teach the course this fall.

Goldman and Lipps declined requests for interviews with the Bit.

Adjusting the online course to be taught in a classroom setting has given the class an unconventional structure, according to Garlock. “The course consists of having students do the work on their own to essentially teach themselves the material,” he said. “And then in class, we go over the problems and students take turns putting them on the board. If it’s a difficult problem, sometimes I will explain a little more clearly how to solve it.” 

Froomkin, the only non-senior in the class, said the discussion-based class has a relaxed atmosphere. “It’s really low-stakes. We haven’t had any quizzes, tests, et cetera,” he said. 

Steele said in an interview that without Number Theory, her only option for further math classes would have been at the college level. “The issue at GDS is that there’s not enough good, hard math classes,” she said, adding that the practice of accelerating students into more advanced courses “doesn’t really fix that” for those who exhaust the curriculum. 

Steele views Number Theory as part of the solution. “It might be my favorite or one of my favorite math classes I’ve taken at GDS,” she said. “And the homework is pretty hard, or at least it’s interesting and it definitely requires some thought.”

Garlock shared Steele’s enthusiasm. “I like this group of students,” he said. “I think that they all seem to be enjoying the material and are motivated to learn.”

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