Math Fair's number games brings parents and students together

Matthew Peterson, CEO and co-founder of Mind Research Institute, is intent upon transforming the perception of math from intimidating to something that’s exciting and approachable. And the Math Fair is integral to this effort, giving attendees plenty of fun, hands-on mathematical experiences.

COSTA MESA, California—Riddle me this: The Westford train, traveling 70 mph, leaves the station heading towards Eastford, 260 miles away. At the same time the Eastford train leaves its station, traveling 60 mph towards Westford. At what point along the journey will the two trains meet?

It’s enough to give me the math sweats. I’m standing with Rob Slaby, superintendent of the Virginia City School District in Nevada. We’re at the Hyundai Formula DRT exhibit, one of 28 located throughout the 2016 Math Fair, held this year at California’s Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

The exhibit consists of about six or so sets of side-by-side train tracks upon which the Westford and Eastford “trains” virtually travel. Participants work out their calculations on screens, then enter the exhibit, placing tiny brain-shaped rubber markers alongside the point on the tracks where they think the virtual trains will intersect.

Since this exhibit is designated grades three and up, Slaby, genial and encouraging, is convinced I can come up with the solution—in my head. Instead, my brain freezes—and only after he has stage-whispered the answer to me do I set down my marker.

Matthew Peterson, CEO and co-founder of fair organizer Mind Research Institute, is intent upon transforming the perception of math from intimidating to something that’s exciting and approachable. And the Math Fair—always free and in its third year—is integral to this effort, giving attendees plenty of fun, hands-on mathematical experiences.

Exhibits include golf-putting games like Bank Shot and Roll All Over; an exhibit called Blockopolis where geometric structures are created with foam blocks; and Lazer Box, where lasers are sent traveling through arrangements of mirrors.

“The idea for the event came out of the realization that what is often referred to as an ‘achievement gap’ is actually an ‘experience gap’ that forms from a disadvantage many students have in the amount of mathematical experiences they’re exposed to outside of school,” Peterson says.

Trial and error

The Math Fair, along with the institute’s MathMINDS program, attempt to close that experience gap by providing opportunities for families “to build a love of math together,” he says. The effort’s paying off. Everywhere Slaby and I turn there’s a crowd of kids and parents. The enthusiasm and energy is such you’d think we were at a candy convention. And in fact, the event has grown impressively.

The first fair, held in 2014 in Irvine, California, had about 4,200 registered attendees, 20 exhibits and over 300 volunteers, says Karin Wu, vice president of engagement for Mind Research Institute. The following year it moved to Chicago, with 24 exhibits, over 300 volunteers and 5,500 registered attendees. This year’s event, held Nov. 5, had 28 exhibits and 480 volunteers and registered attendees surged to over 9,000.

Slaby and I practically have to fight our way through the crush of people to try some of the challenges. He’s pretty excited, not just because it’s his first Math Fair, but because he loves to see how thrilled the kids are to be here and how they interact with the games. What he especially likes about the games, and Mind Research Institute’s ST Math program, is there’s no sense of failure.

For example, we try one game involving removing virtual blocks so that JiJi (the penguin character who stars in ST Math games) can move forward. There aren’t instructions about how to do what’s needed. “It’s all intuitive,” Slaby says. “Go ahead, you can figure it out.”   

It takes me several tries, but in a burst of insight I get it and manage to send JiJi across the screen. And I see what he likes about this approach. If the first attempt doesn’t pan out, it’s not “wrong”—it’s more like “that didn’t work, let’s try something else.”

Math smiles

We duck into the Math Mystery Theater to catch the interactive show where children—using computers and guided by two actors dressed as lab workers—try to determine how many gumballs are in a jar. The kids’ calculations become more challenging when the actor playing the assistant sneaks gumballs into her mouth and then hands her “boss” a big wad of chewed up gum. The kids have to guess how many gumballs were consumed and their new calculations appear on screens surrounding the stage.

Exiting, we run into Jason Eitner, superintendent for the Waterford Township School District in New Jersey. This is also his first Math Fair and he’s pretty blown away by it.

“I think the best way to describe this is shock and awe,” Eitner says. “To see a sea of smiles while playing the games and working through the process of math, with complete engagement from all participants, is amazing.”

Eitner’s takeaways from the event: Integrating some of the technology used at the fair into his classrooms and getting more feedback from parents in his district about ST Math. He has the program in all of three his schools; Slaby has them in three of four.

Slaby hopes the family interaction he’s witnessing carries back into the home, he says. That’s Peterson’s goal as well.

“I hope parents continue the mathematical discussions they started having with their kids at the Math Fair,” he says. “The world is full of beautiful mathematics, and there’s a wealth of opportunities to explore and appreciate that math, especially in activities the families already engage in.”

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