CITY OF THE SMARTS: Math Beyond the Numbers

Saturday, October 18, 2014, 11:24 am
By Judith Bridger

Note: ELi is instituting new weekly features! Today is our second installment of our new Saturday feature, “City of the Smarts.” This weekly column will fill you in on geeky pleasures of and brain-enhancing opportunities in East Lansing. If you have news of a local brainy pleasure to share, use our contact form.

If you are a math geek (or even if you aren’t), try tackling sample problem #129 (one of the many activities at the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festivals):  “Show how to make six equilateral triangles with nine toothpicks of equal length, the sides of the triangles all being the length of one toothpick.” Though the festivals are designed for children, this problem was so intriguing it brought a dozen friends (kids, adults, and college professors alike) together in an attempt to solve it over several days. As of publication, the answer has not yet been discovered and those involved have not given in to the temptation of using Google to find the solution. What an example of "the richness and beauty of mathematics" brought to life by these ever-growing festivals.

On Tuesday, October 21 East Lansing High School (ELHS) will host the fourth year of the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival for elementary students in the first through fifth grades. Since 2011, as part of a national effort to expand young minds in the field of math, children have packed the room, keen on exploring this innovative problem solving event, which will come to East Lansing, Mason, Grand Rapids, and as far away as Indiana.

Ashley Ahlin, Chairman of the East Lansing festival since its inception, is Outreach Coordinator for the MSU Mathematics Department, which is a Co-Sponsor. Ahlin was quick to clarify the event is not a competition but a festival.

These young students will be given the opportunity to work with a challenging curriculum that encourages them to look outside the box in comparison to the everyday materials they have or already know. Students are put into a small group of their peers, each with a group leader. Stations will be set up around ELHS with games, 3-D exploration and a variety of hands on activities. This encourages them to research the various aspects of math on their own, out of the classroom. Students might explore knots, for instance, studying them to see how they are created, learn to identify them by their shapes, and determine if they are actually a knot or just a tangle of cords. Ahlin pointed out, “Our goal is to give them the freedom to explore mathematical ideas, to see it as an interesting and challenging field.”

The idea for this type of festival was originally developed in collaboration and funding by the desJardins/Blachman Fund and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkley. Recreational math enthusiast Nancy Blachman discovered a math competition she enjoyed as a child was no longer in existence. She and her husband, David desJardins, worked to recreate her enthusiasm for math into this Mission Statement, “ inspire students to explore the richness and beauty of mathematics through activities that encourage collaborative, creative problem-solving.” In turn, they chose to recognize Julia Robinson who had been a mathematics professor at UC Berkley, as she was the first woman honored to become a member of the National Academy of Science.

The festival on October 21 is completely sold out, with 200 eager young minds already registered. Mark your calendar to sign up your little genius early next year. It’s supercalifragilisticexpiMATHidocious. And what is Hilbert's Tenth Problem anyway?


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