Who's the (Math) Fairest of Them All?

A year ago I read in the PIMS Newsletter about a project Ted Lewis was doing at the University of Alberta. Students in his course for future elementary school teachers ran math fairs at which families from whole elementary schools came to the university campus for an evening of non-competitive mathematical games and puzzles. Not only were the schools and families filled with enthusiasm, but the university course shot up in popularity and effectiveness. The impact was so impressive that it won him an award. It sounded lovely and definitely relevant to my own courses for elementary school teachers.

As soon as I let myself start thinking about attempting a similar project, a whole collection of modifications and local adaptations and extensions began to suggest themselves to me. The version of the Math Fair I did was a slightly more localized one. I have the good fortune to be working with a GK-12 project that takes graduate students into some local elementary schools to support teachers who are implementing a standards-based math curriculum. I work primarily with Leschi Elementary School in Seattle's Central Area, and the principal and a number of teachers there enthusiastically supported the project. Several GK-12 fellows agreed to participate as well, which made the group of participants large enough to make the fair possible.

Localizing to one school was in some sense a reduction of the suggested format. On another front I augmented it: instead of having the students in my course for future elementary teachers (Math 171) run the games and puzzles themselves, I added an intermediate phase of having them teach Leschi students how to do so. This turned out to be logistically hair-raising, and very rewarding. My Math 171 students were very excited about having a chance to work with the children in their classrooms. Many came back from their preparation sessions absolutely glowing, which is a good state for a future teacher.

The Math Fair itself was on a Tuesday evening from 6:30 to 8:00. We set up tables in the lunchroom and the gym. On each table was a puzzle ("Put these four pieces together to make a square, and then again to make a Greek cross", "Put the colored dots into this triangle so that no dot touches another one of the same color"...) or a game ("Take turns removing one or two coins and try not to take the last one"...) In theory each table was presided over by Leschi students with background assistance from a Math 171 student or a GK-12 fellow and general supervision from their own classroom teacher. In practice a few of the tables ran that way, and more of them wound up directly in the hands of the Math 171 students. Our primary goal was to have many Leschi families come to the fair and have a lot of fun doing math together, and this goal we definitely met. We didn't do an attendance count, but both the lunchroom and the gym had enough of a population to keep the energy bouncing from the walls, and almost all of that population was families. You can get some impression of the event if you check out www.math.washington.edu/~warfield/Math_Fair/Math_Fair.html, where I have posted a bunch of pictures.

Two additional elements worked out nicely, one of them in an unexpected way. We promised "mathematical snacks," kindly supplied by the University of Washington Math Department. I got to select them (Costco all the way!) and label them -- great fun. There were parallel lines (sticks of cheese), mini-toruses (bagels), and circular disks, stacked (Oreos) and not (vanilla wafers), plus a few others. They may have been educational, and they certainly were entertaining. We also invited people to come and make a giant tetrahedron. ("What's that? Come and find out!") For that I brought in lots and lots of clear drinking straws and ribbon. My original idea was that each child could make a tetrahedron, and then we would tie them in fours to make a super-tetrahedron, then take sets of four of the larger ones and make a super-super-tetrahedron, and maybe even take it up from there. As it turned out, they loved making the tetrahedra, and did it very well. What they didn't want was to part with them, so instead of producing a giant one, we had lots of kids heading home with colorful tetrahedra trailing behind them.

As is presumably clear by now, I wound up highly enthusiastic, and with every intention of continuing to do this in my courses for future elementary school teachers. If you would like to try one (and I heartily encourage you to do so!), there is lots of help available. "The math fair booklet" by Ted Lewis is available through the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences (www.pims.math.ca), and there is even a web site about math fairs: www.mathfair.com. The basic benefits are manifold: a positive mathematical experience for a batch of kids, a chance to involve families in some lively mathematical experiences, an opportunity for future elementary school teachers to have a little exposure to kids and their thinking. There's one more benefit that is slightly less obvious, and that is the reason I hope to entice some of my colleagues into taking part in some of these: it is a straightforward way for those of us on university campuses to show our interest in and support for our often beleaguered elementary schools. Not to mention that it is a tremendous amount of fun!

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