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I guess I just want other people to solve the Rubik's cube

This much was clear. A conference room full of middle and high schoolers had been assembled and were now working out math problems. On a Sunday. To someone who wept through stats homework, it seemed like a game of Clue, who done this? At the lectern, a man shared formulas one might find useful in attempting a rapid solution of the Rubik's cube. A series of x's and y's to the nth power flashed before the hushed underage audience.

Were these kids really into what was going on, or was this some well-orchestrated parent plot to shut down a perfectly good weekend? It was Mom in the living room with the bribes and threats about not getting into college! But board game detective I was not. This became apparent when the young man in a hoody sitting on my left picked up a cube offhandedly. Without fanfare, his hands began to blur. He lined up the colors in well under a minute and set the cube back down. Welcome to last weekend's Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival, where math, it appeared, was not just a problem to be solved.

“If you want to put it in basketball terms.” Festival co-organizer Joshua Zucker is explaining to me the difference between kids doing math “exercises,” which he says comprise the majority of schoolwork these days, and “problem solving.” Please, I encourage him, put it in basketball terms. “Exercises are like dribbling down an empty court. Problem solving, that's like dribbling down a court with a defender on you. Computers do exercises – we want kids to learn how to think.” To further illustrate his point, he proposes I perform a simple mental game involving twisting my wrists together. Blinded by my fear of math, I fail miserably, and he patiently reiterates what I must do to free myself.

Round tables fill the Pauley Ballroom in UC Berkeley's Martin Luther King, Jr. student union, at which are seated young students, math professionals, and various UC Berkeley faculty. They do not appear to be worried a whit by the prospect of the boxes and equations before them. Each table houses a few kinds of math challenges: here, kids are constructing a massive fractal cube made from folded bits of paper. There, scholars puzzle over math “magic” tricks and geometry formulas, aided by a female NASA scientist. There's no clear stop and start time – participants circulate around the room at their own pace, parents in tow or mercifully mingling in the seating area at the room's fringes.

The festival's format is constructed to encourage kids to think about why we do math -- and we're not talking about that scholarship to Cal here but instead that little thing about how math helps us figure out the world around us (which I concede, if grudgingly). Accordingly, an instruction sheet written by Zucker greets table leaders at the event's entrance cautioning them that “you're welcome to encourage group work when you see good opportunities, or encourage individual work, but don't encourage too strongly: mostly let the kids decide whether they want to work on their own or with their neighbors.” This looseness is a deliberate departure from the other form of extra-curricular activity for the numbers set (ha!): the math competition, and has much to do with the festival's namesake, female math pioneer and UC Berkeley professor Julia Robinson, who tackled complex theories in the days before people were fully keen on the concept of female mathematicians.

“We think the non-contest atmosphere is more conducive to girls,” says Zucker, who used to teach math at the girls-only Castilleja School in Palo Alto, comparing the festival's roughly 60-40 boy-girl ratio with the typical 70-30 that one sees at the higher-pressure math contests. Girls, the assumption goes, aren't into parading their smarts all over the place.

It's a theory that's borne out by what I witness at the festival. For the most part, the boys are quick to acknowledge when they perform a particularly astute calculation. The girls seem more content to listen and work through equations on their own steam, though it must be said that a few are far from retiring.

California College Preparatory Academy ninth grader Breanna Alleyne drags family friend Aaron Johnson over to the table where I sit, puzzling with the mathemagic tricks. The two plow their way through problems along with the help of Eleanor Long, a San Francisco charter school math teacher who came to observe at the festival but wound up working though problems with the students at her table – a kneejerk reaction, it would seem, of a committed educator encountering the academically earnest.

“We've developed a tradition around the event,” says Breanna's mom Fatima Alleyne, who I catch up with at her welcome table post, where she is checking in festival attendees. Breanna, I note, approaches the subject lightheartedly at the problem-solving tables, and Fatima, a materials scientist at UC Berkeley who works with resonated devices, says their three years of attendance at the festival has to do with framing math in a light that she feels is missing from traditional classrooms these days. “I don't think you have to have a developed appreciation of math to really enjoy it in this setting. I just want her to see math in a different way than how she gets it in school.”

I ask Alleyne about how times have changed between her years coming up in school and those of Breanna's. She remembers her scientific curiosity being sparked by her participation in science fairs and other “enrichment activities” outside of school hours. Alleyne just doesn't see those same diverse opportunities for learning these days. “The activities that encouraged you to participate in math and science – they're just no longer in existence.”

This relative dearth in chances outside the classroom to connect with like-minded scholars may be one reason why some kids at Julia Robinson clearly benefit from being around the old pros that help out at the festival. Take sixth grader Kyle Asano, who watched the Rubik's cube lecture sitting on the other side of Scott Okamura, the Rubik's whiz who had shocked me in the first place and who turned out to be a freshman at Cal who helps facilitate a free speedcubing course. I ask Okamura why he spends his precious free hours away from his math major instructing others in the art of square. “I guess I just want other people to know how to solve the Rubik's cube,” he smiles.

Asano, who estimates his best cube-solving time at a minute and 18 seconds, tells us that he, along with a few school friends at Cupertino Middle School, is really into the cubes. “The center cube decides which color the side's going to be,” he gracefully informs us before pumping Okamura for more info on his particular cube-solving techniques. Later I spot the two at another table, whizzing through 3-D puzzles that would stump an unseasoned hand (mine). Proof in the Pythagorean, it would seem, that the Julia Robinson Festival does indeed provide a thought provoking math experience – in or out of the box.

NOTE: Photos from MSRI's Julia Robinson Math Festival can be seen by following the URL link above.