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They're Psyched on Number Games

  1. April 23, 2007
  2. Barbara Feder Ostrov
  3. SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
  4. http://www.msri.org/communications/articles/attachments/psyched1.pdf

An intense buzz of conversation and concentration filled Google's Mountain View campus Sunday as hundreds of students participated in the first Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival.

Bouncing from table to table staffed by volunteer math experts, students age 11 to 18 dabbled in progressively more difficult math challenges, collecting raffle tickets for their work. Prizes included math books, Google gear and behind-the-scenes tours of Google.

The festival, the first such event organized by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at the University of California-Berkeley, was sponsored by Google and early Google engineer David DesJardins and his wife, Nancy Blachman.

Named after the late Berkeley mathematician Julia Robinson, the festival drew about 350 middle and high school students from Marin County to Morgan Hill to San Diego, said festival director Joshua Zucker, a math teacher at the Castilleja School in Palo Alto.

"Kids who love sports have teams. Kids who love math can get isolated in school," said David Eisenbud, a Berkeley mathematics professor who directs the research institute. "This gives them a place to come and socialize."

Fun with theories

Behind the "Pirate Puzzlers," "Fibonacci Flips" and other catchily named exercises were sophisticated principles of the advanced mathematics these students may study in college and beyond: combinatorics, game theory, number theory, topology.

At the Times Tables and Beyond table supervised by Stanford sophomore Helen Chang, Conrad Holda, a seventh-grader at Presidio Middle School in San Francisco, intently looked for patterns in a multiplication table.

What numbers occurred in the most places? What was the sum of all the numbers in the table? Easily able to answer the questions, he carefully placed his reward of raffle tickets in a pencil box.

"Math uses a lot of logic. For me, it's easy," said Conrad, who at age 13 already is studying geometry at a high school level and wants to be a jet pilot. The festival was a challenge, he said, because "you have to find new patterns I never would have thought of." His father, Zygmunt Holda, couldn't have been more pleased. A math lover himself, "I'm really happy he's into math," Holda said. "Math is topic No. 1 at our house. I challenge him to find new problems. He already knows how to apply math in everyday life."

Mulling over a logic puzzle that involved pirates and walking the plank, Jaya Narasimhan, an eighth-grader at Discovery Charter School in San Jose, said she liked the variety of math challenges at the festival, a nice change from the algebra she's studying in school.

Proving themselves

"It's pretty fun," she said. "I like math because you can prove everything you do."

Added table supervisor Nick Baxter, captain of the U.S. Puzzle Team and father of a participating student: "Problem solving is something everyone does. It should be fun, not just a task and not just homework."

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED

For more information about future math events, visit the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at www.msri.org or the Santa Clara Valley Mathematics Association (www.scvmath.org).