9000 Math Geeks

Would you ever think that over 9,000 people would attend a math fair on a Saturday? It happened! Last month, thousands of smiles descended upon the Orange County Fairgrounds for the third annual MIND Research Institute’s Math Fair.

Before I continue, I need to go on the record and state that I despised math in school. I loved algebra so much that I took it again the following year! It always left a bad taste in my mouth for two reasons. 1. I was adamant that I was never going to use any math, ever, and 2. I didn’t know what I was doing!

There were 28 exhibits located throughout the 2016 Math Fair, held this year at California’s Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

The first exhibit I stopped at consisted of about six or so sets of side-by-side train tracks upon which the Westford and Eastford “trains” virtually traveled. Participants worked out their calculations on screens, then entered the exhibit, placing tiny brain-shaped rubber markers alongside the point on the tracks where they thought the virtual trains would intersect.

Since this exhibit was designated grades three and up, Slaby, genial and encouraging, was convinced I could come up with the solution—in my head. Instead, my brain froze, and, only after he had stage-whispered the answer to me, did 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. How do I know this? Because I have been using his program, ST Math, for the past  four years. It has changed all of my thoughts and feelings about the relationship of school and math.

Other exhibits included golf-putting games like Bank Shot and Roll All Over, an exhibit called Blockopolis where geometric structures were created with foam blocks, and Lazer Box where lasers were 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. The Math Fair attempts to close that experience gap by providing opportunities for families so that they can  build a love of math together.

The first fair, held in 2014 in Irvine, California, had roughly 4,200 registered attendees. The following year it moved to Chicago with 24 exhibits, over 300 volunteers and 5,500 registered attendees. This year’s event had 28 exhibits and 480 volunteers, and registered attendees surged to over 9,000.

I had to fight my way through the crush of people to try some of the challenges. I was pretty excited, not just because it was my first Math Fair, but because I was eager to see how thrilled the kids were to be there and how they interacted with the games. The coolest part of the fair? There is no sense of failure with any math activity.

There was also a Math Mystery Theater to catch the interactive show where primary-aged children—using computers and guided by two actors dressed as lab workers—tried to determine how many gumballs were in a jar. The kids’ calculations become more challenging when the actor playing the assistant sneaked gumballs into her mouth and then handed her “boss” a big wad of chewed-up gum. The kids had to guess how many gumballs were consumed, and their new calculations appeared on screens surrounding the stage. Again, a sea of smiles and laughter at a math fair… Think about that!

I hope this wasn’t my last fair. Such an infectious event needs to be shared all over. Math is cool after all!

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