2013-05-31 / Front Page

Math fest comes to Maine

By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer


Brett Clark and Daniel Walker-Duvay of Consolidated School try to untangle themselves Thursday, May 23 at The Braid puzzle station, part of the Julia Robinson Math Festival. The Braid was one of the more physical puzzles. Fifth graders from Mildred L. Day, Consolidated and Sea Road schools were invited to attend the festival at University of New England’s campus in Biddeford. (Alex Acquisto photo) Brett Clark and Daniel Walker-Duvay of Consolidated School try to untangle themselves Thursday, May 23 at The Braid puzzle station, part of the Julia Robinson Math Festival. The Braid was one of the more physical puzzles. Fifth graders from Mildred L. Day, Consolidated and Sea Road schools were invited to attend the festival at University of New England’s campus in Biddeford. (Alex Acquisto photo) BIDDEFORD —“I love math!” Sheila Wells, S.T.E.M. coordinator, shouted into the microphone at the front of University of New England’s Decary Dining Hall.

Fifth-graders from Consolidated School, Sea Road and Mildred L. Day, all clad in white shirts that read “iSolve @ RSU 21” responded in unison, “I love math!”

The Julia Robinson Math Festival had never been hosted in New England. Robinson, a former professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was revered as a pioneer for mathematics and for her solution to Hilbert’s tenth problem.


Parent volunteers Theresa Curran, left, and Ann Sanders, behind, look on as Kennebunk High School math teacher Alan Carp explains the combinatorials puzzle “6 Choose 3” to fifth graders Karissa Simpson and Fayth Nedeau of Mildred L. Day School. The Julia Robinson Math Festival took place Thursday, May 23 at University of New England in Biddeford. (Alex Acquisto photo) Parent volunteers Theresa Curran, left, and Ann Sanders, behind, look on as Kennebunk High School math teacher Alan Carp explains the combinatorials puzzle “6 Choose 3” to fifth graders Karissa Simpson and Fayth Nedeau of Mildred L. Day School. The Julia Robinson Math Festival took place Thursday, May 23 at University of New England in Biddeford. (Alex Acquisto photo) The first female president of the American Mathematical Society, Robinson died in 1985 at the age of 65. Robinson’s family and friends started the festival as a way of keeping interest in math alive.

Wells, a Technology Integration Specialist in addition to S.T.E.M. coordinator, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, said the Julia Robinson Festival was just something that she and other RSU 21 faculty members had heard about. “We just decided to see if we could bring it to our district,” said Wells.

“I’d stumbled across the festival while doing research on STEM on a MSRI website— the folks who started the festival,” said Assistant Superintendent for RSU 21 Sara Zito. MSRI, or Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, began hosting the Julia Robinson Math Festival in 2007 at Google’s headquarters.

In its nascent stages the festival was reserved for college students. From Google the festival went to Pixar, and on to colleges like Stamford, UCLA and Arizona State University. In recent years the festival has made its way into high schools and middle schools.

Said Jennifer Humphrey, teacher at Consolidated School, “Often events like the Julia Robinson Math Festival are only available for higher caliber students. I think the district decided to let all kids participate because we knew it would have far-reaching effects. A great thing about festivals like these is that they encourage kids to think outside the box.”

Zito agreed: “I wanted it to be something that everyone could experience. Math is one of those areas that unless the opportunity is there, you might not know you enjoy it.”

“This is a celebration of mathematics, non-competitive, but featuring math challenges and puzzles that the kids will solve. The idea is to celebrate students’ interest in math, games and puzzles,” said Carol Bousquet, Education Foundation Communications committee member.

Planning for the festival began over a year ago. “From the beginning we tried to think about where we would host this—nearly 200 students. UNE was so cooperative in helping. Dr. Bilksy provided us with liaisons to their math and science departments,” Zito said. The liaisons from the University of New England also helped to organize independen afternoon science activities.

The day prior to the festival, a training session was held for parents, volunteers and teachers. Because the festival was not competitive, children were given the freedom to leave a station without solving the puzzle. However, they were encouraged to try and put serious thought into finding the solutions.

“Instead of giving them hints, we were told to say things like, ‘I sympathize with you,’” said Wendy Thompson, teacher at Sea Road. “This festival allows for an exploratory type of thinking and mind-bending, and we were urged to not really give suggestions at all,” said Thompson.

“Training itself was just inspiring,” Zito said. “Parents, community members, teachers from all levels were coached with the idea that there isn’t one way to solve the puzzles. It isn’t necessarily about the solution; it’s about the process.”

There were approximately 15 different mathematical stations available to the students in the first half of the festival before lunch. A combination of parent volunteers, teachers from varying levels, or professors were present at every activity station. Most stations involved sitting at a table and solving problems.

Ann Sanders, a parent volunteer, manned the “6 Choose 3,” puzzle with Kennebunk High School math teacher Alan Carp. Sanders’ son, Robert, a student at Sea Road, was participating at the station.

“This is a combinatorials activity,” said Carp, referring to the puzzle. “How many combinations can you get when you choose from six?” There were six dishes of differently colored small cubes in the middle of the table.

Sanders motioned to Fayth Nedeau, a student at Mildred L. Day.

“She’s been here all morning working trying to figure it out.” Sanders said with a smile,

“This is the only station I’ve been to,” Nedeau. said. She lowered her head to look at her white piece of paper scribbled with notes and colors of the cubes that she had drawn.

“You’re really close to finishing,” said Carp. “Really close.”

Sanders held her hand to her mouth and whispered so that Fayth couldn’t hear. “The answer is supposed to come to 20 combinations.”

“Some of the kids, for example at the Cryptography puzzle, sat there for an hour trying to solve it,” Sheila Wells said. “This festival isn’t about problem solving in the way textbooks present it,” she said. “And we have had to become risk takers as much as the kids have in that way,” said Wells of fellow teachers and students.

Other stations, such as Rational Tangles or The Braid, were more physical. Dave Auckly, a professor from Kansas State University, associate director at Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, and a key sponsor for the festival, manned these stations. A combination of funds from the district and the Education Foundation provided Auckly free transportation to the event and accommodations in Kennebunk.

Auckly, wide-eyed and ebullient, bounced as he spoke to students. “You two are going to be stuck together and you two are going to be stuck together!” he said, pointing to two pairs of fifth-grade boys he had just tied together at the wrists with rope. The objective was to learn how to work together and untangle each other.

Two pairs of fifth-grade girls ran up to Auckly. “We did it!” They shouted, holding up their untangled ropes. “Yeah, can we do it again,” one of the girls asked as she dropped her hip in dramatic fashion.

In addition to his position as Associate Director, Auckly is on a leadership team for the National Association of Math Circles.

“A math circle is a community-based group that meets on a somewhat regular basis to explore and enjoy mathematics,” said Auckly. “Such groups are common in Eastern Europe, where they have existed for around 100 years. We are trying to spread this idea across the United States.”

When asked why he thinks gatherings like the Julia Robinson Math Festival are important for all students to be a part of, as opposed to just gifted and talented students, Auckly said, “Let me use a sports analogy. Imagine how the United States would do at basketball if the only time people were exposed to it was in a classroom setting where they ran drills and were given grades. People learn much more about basketball by playing games for the sheer joy of the sport, than they ever would if it was just a school activity.”

“In addition to making better basketball players, this part of our culture makes the entire populace healthier,” Auckly said. “The fact that it is culturally acceptable to play basketball for fun not only encourages people who like basketball to play, it also encourages people to explore other sports.

“Open-ended problem solving is an important skill for most of the interesting jobs. A more interesting job would collect a team of people together and ask them to arrive at new ideas to address some important situation. Taught properly, mathematics will give people experience creating new ideas to tackle novel problems, and this is a skill that is important even when someone does not use standard mathematical algorithms,” Auckly said.

The cost of hosting the Julia Robinson Math Festival was between $7,000 and $7,500. The contributions and donations were provided by an amalgamation of organizations and parents. Hannaford and Kennebunk Savings Bank contributed, for example. The Education Foundation funded approximately $4,000 of the cost.

“Parents donated about $10 per student, which added up to be somewhere between $500 and $1,000” said Wells. “The University of New England donated their building, some of the professors are even here donating their time and energy,” Wells said.

One of those professors, Ed Bilsky, pharmacology professor, associate provost for Research and Scholarship, and founder and director of the Center for Excellence in the Neurosciences, was in attendance and taking pictures.

Bilsky, along with a few colleagues, founded the Grow Up and Grow Out With Us outreach group, which visits all the schools in district RSU 21, numbering to about 3,500 students. Bilksy says that his outreach team, which consists mostly of pharmacology students, medical students, and undergraduates, speaks to kids in grades two to 12. The purpose of the outreach program: to raise awareness around neurological issues.

“We practice vertical integration: with the younger ages we focus on things like helmet safety. As the students get older our message becomes increasingly sophisticated,” said Bilsky. “With the middle and high schoolers we talk about brain awareness safety, concussions from contact sports, and how addiction and drugs can impact your brain in a detrimental way,” he said. “We delve into more anatomy and physiology.”

So when Bilsky received a call from Assistant Superintendent Zito to ask if he wanted to participate by helping to independently plan science events for the students after lunch, he was on board. One of these events involved a cantaloupe and a bike helmet.

“I believe very deeply in raising awareness about all neurological issues. They’re nothing to be intimidated about,” said Bilsky. “The district’s teachers have had a tough job with budget cuts; we like to provide them with resources if we can,” he said.

Said Zito, “The thing about these festivals is that they take very different formats—we designed ours in a way that seemed to fit our concept and our philosophies and we were overwhelmed with UNE’s willingness and interest in helping us.”

“I think we learned a lot about the personalities of the kids as well, and how we can inspire them to love math while feeling confident about it. Math is a part of our whole world, and not just a part of the classroom,” Zito said.

As lunchtime neared and the morning’s problem solving came to a close, students were urged to finish the puzzles they were currently working on.

Before Wells approached the microphone to get the students’ attention she said, “Hopefully our success from this festival will continue to generate more excitement about hosting it again next year.”

“I love math!” Wells shouted when she reached the microphone. “I love math!” the students responded in unison.

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