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Lots of Local Kids (and Parents) Have Fun with Math at Math Carnival: Gathering for Gardner

February 3, 2017

An Illinois math student (right) works on a tile puzzle with a local youngster at the Math Carnival's Tile Emporium station.

Hundreds of local adults and children converged on Altgeld Hall on Saturday, January 28th for Math Carnival: Gathering for Gardner. As they participated in the numerous puzzles, games, riddles, magic tricks, and other hands-on activities, they discovered that math is more than just figures and formulas. According to Melinda Lanius, a math Ph.D. student who, along with Assistant Professor Philipp Hieronymi, organized this year’s event, “Math is play!” So numerous volunteers from IllinoisDepartment of Mathematics, Illinois Geometry Lab, and Association for Women in Mathematics spent the afternoon showing members of the community that play can indeed be math—and that it’s fun.  

Above: A local student (right) tries his hand at a rope trick on an Illinois math student at the Magical Wonders and Secrets station.

The event was extremely successful, with families showing up throughout the afternoon. Although only 250 persons officially signed in, Hieronymi suspects that not everyone signed in, and that often one parent signed in for the whole family. His best guess? Between 750 and 1000 people showed up.

The turnout was fantastic," admits Hieronymi, "albeit above everything I could have imagined. This shows that there is a great demand for such activities in the Urbana-Champaign community."

Two students make snowflakes at the Snowflake Station.

Visitors could participate in a variety of math-related activities spread out in stations over several different rooms in Altgeld, ranging from hands-on activities to riddles, to magic tricks, to games, to estimation activities.

For example, one popular hands-on activity was the Snowflake Station, where kids learned about snowflakes, how they're six-sided, and how falling through clouds with different temperatures and moisture levels shapes each one in a unique way. The youngsters then proceeded to use scissors and paper to create their own, unique snowflake, which they got to take home.

Another popular station was the Tile Emporium, where a variety of wooden puzzles of different colors and shapes called on students' mathematical reasoning and problem-solving skills.

At the Riddle Mania station, a mom helps her llittle boy figure out which box the shell is under. (He guessed correctly!)

Kids could also try to solve a couple of riddles at the Riddle Mania station. One was a kind of shell game where they were to guess, based on logic clues, which colorful box had an object underneath. (Spoiler alert: It was the yellow box.)

Another was a classic math riddle, Crossing the River (with a lion, a goat, and a tin can.) Here's the scenario: A man comes to a river with a boat. He has with him a lion, a goat, and a tin can. The man can only carry one single passenger besides himself in the boat. How can he get them all to the other side without the goat eating the tin can, or the lion eating the goat?

Illinois sophomore Emily Alameda does the Crossing the River acitvity with a local youngster at the Riddle Mania station.

Helping to make the day special were the many volunteers who shared their passion for math with visitors. Hieronymi applauds the math students: "I think our students did an outstanding job, and they were all fantastic ambassadors for mathematics. And even though the turnout was way larger than expected, they handled everything with great patience and enthusiasm." He also had high praise for Melinda Lanius, who organized and prepared all the puzzles and demonstrations.

One Illinois student who helped with the event was sophomore Emily Alameda, who participated in the Math Carnival because she loves working with kids. Pleased with the event’s impact, she says: “I was actually not expecting the turnout we had, but I think that the kids that participated in the logic games felt confident, and I like how the math department made an event that shows just how interesting and interactive math is.”

Alameda also was excited about giving the kids the opportunity to experience math at a fun event like the Carnival—something that she didn’t get to do as a youngster. “I didn't have exposure to this in high school or in elementary school/middle school, and I think if I had understood how math really is, how fun it can be, I would have been more interested in studying it earlier.”

Illinois math PhD students Santiago Camacho and Nima Rasekh, who worked at the Riddle Mania station for the afternoon.

Another student who participated was Santiago Camacho, a math Ph.D. student who helped with the Riddle Mania station. His goal in volunteering was to help folks get over their fear or dislike of math.

“I think that it is wonderful for everybody from kids in elementary school to grownups to participate in a little bit of mathematics in a playful way.  'Cause I know many people are afraid of mathematics or they don't like mathematics because they have had bad experiences with it. But this is a way where everyone can enjoy mathematics through magic tricks, riddles, games.”

He also believes it’s a great way to interact with the community: “It's something that brings a lot of the community from Urbana-Champaign onto campus to enjoy something that is so passionate for me.” 

Second year math grad student Hadrian Quan gives a visitor to the Estimation Station pointers on how to estimate the number of nuts in the three jars.

Helping with Estimation Station was 2nd year math graduate student, Hadrian Quan, whose specialization is in Geometric Analysis. Visitors who dropped by his station were to guess how many nuts of various sizes fit into three jars. Quan led a discussion of different ways to better estimate these numbers.

He was especially excited about the "Estimation Station," because "Humans are notoriously bad about estimating large distances/ lengths/quantities or having an intuitive sense for these relative sizes," he says. "However, we can very quickly learn how to improve our gut instincts, and it was exciting to talk with children of all ages about these ideas."

A local daughter and mother try their hand at estimating the number of nuts in a jar at Estimation Station.

Excited about participating in the Carnival, Quan hoped to "remove some of the seriousness of math. As a student of mathematics, I like to remind others that math can be recreational and fun. Getting to interact with hundreds of children and their families at a math carnival is my ideal Saturday."

A local mother acknowledges that she brought her two kids to the Carnival to expose them to STEM: “I want them to be exposed to science, technology, math and engineering, and we support the STEM department at the University of Illinois.”

A local student, Ella, whose favorite subject is math, participates in the Penny Parade during the Math Carnival.

She particularly felt the event would be of benefit to her nine-year-old daughter, Ella, who says math is her favorite subject. “Especially for my daughter, I want her to know that girls can do anything boys can do! And she can be a math teacher or an engineer if she wants to be!”

What kind of impact did the event have? According to Hieronymi, "This event surely had the impact we expected. We wanted to engage children with mathematics in a fun, hands-on way, and I think we managed to do so. Of course, you don't reach every kid, but from the impression I got, many of the children thoroughly enjoyed the event and many stayed for much if not all of the three hours of the event."

Left to right: Melinda Lanius, a math Ph.D. student, and Assistant Professor Philipp Hieronymi, who organized this year’s Math Carnival.

Did they succeed in recruiting any kids into STEM? "While probably few children become scientists just because of a single event," Hieronymi admits, "I do strongly believe that such experiences (in particular, when repeated) can make a huge difference in the attitude of children towards STEM fields and may encourage them to pursue a career in such fields."

While anecdotal evidence is acceptable as proof of the event's success, being a math event, mathematical proof, which we'll call the cookie theorem, seems appropos. It's based on the number of cookie runs Hieronymi had to make before and throughout the afternoon (three all total) to keep the snack table stocked up, and on the number of cookies purchased (200 cookies + 100 cookies + 150 cookies = a successful event). According to Hieroymi, after his second trip, "I put them down on the table. I looked up. I looked down, and the cookies were also gone." So he went and bought another 150 cookies, which lasted till the end, which he says "was a good thing," because they only had oatmeal-raisin cookies left at the store.

Based on the resounding success of the event, Hieronymi is already planning for next year. "It is clear that such an event should have a permanent place in the UIUC calendar, and that next time we will need more or bigger rooms."

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.

For additional stories about Math's Gathering for Gardner event, see:

For more related stories, see: Champaign-Urbana Community, K-12 Outreach, K-16 Outreach, Math, 2017

A local kindergartener proudly exhibits the puzzle of a rabbit that he created at the Tile Emporium.

A local youngster shows off the "snowflake" she made at the Math Carnival's Snowflake station.
A math student (left) works with a local youngster grappling with a puzzle at the Tile Emporium station.