Friday, 1 January 2016

Math fair workshop at Banff

The 14th annual math fair workshop at BIRS will take place over the weekend of May 6/7/8, 2016.
(BIRS = the Banff International Research Station.)

Right off, let me say that I have a pretty bad attitude about school science fairs.  You know — those competitions with poster sessions, baking soda volcanoes, and parent-created displays. The ones that end with an obligatory showcasing of a winner — a bright student who looks like he/she will go on to become the next Neil deGrasse Tyson, and who, for a short while, will be a poster-person for our education system.

OK, that's harsh, but it is still very much the norm to single out a winner.

How about having one that does not overly favour the highly talented? One that even a less confident student would enjoy and not end up feeling like a failure because he or she did not win a medal.

If you’re like me, you do not enjoy being tagged as a loser, and you would likely withdraw from a situation where that is liable to occur. Aviva Dunsiger touched upon this in her blog. Although her post is about phys-ed rather than mathematics, she paints a clear picture of the response to anticipated failure:
Yes, there were always strong athletes, but those that struggled (and I was one of them) wanted nothing to do with phys-ed. With my visual spatial difficulties, games like volleyball, basketball, and baseball were a tremendous struggle. I certainly never got picked for a team, and I couldn’t blame anyone. Why would I want to be physically active if I was only going to meet with failure?

[the emphasis is Aviva's]

Can we have a math fair where students can be mathematically active without the anticipation of failure?  One where students do not need a badge or ribbon to confirm that their efforts have paid off ?

Such math fairs do exist. They’re called SNAP math fairs because they are Student-centred, Non-competitive, All-inclusive, and Problem-based.

The fairs are built around math-based puzzles. The students first solve the puzzles[1] and afterwards prepare the artwork and puzzle pieces that are required to display them.  

Visit such a fair and you will find students manning their puzzles. But, you will not see them exhibiting the solutions. Instead, they will invite you to try the puzzles yourself, and they will give you hints and help when you run into difficulty. The math fair is very interactive. It is much more than a poster-session.

* * *

Here are a couple of puzzles from past math fairs. The first one is for younger students to solve. 

Cats Pigs and Cows

A farmer has nine animal pens arranged in three rows of three. 

Each pen must contain a cat, a pig, or a cow. 

There is already a pig and a cat in two of the pens. 

The farmer wants you to fill the remaining pens so that no row or column contains two of the same animal.

The second puzzle is for older students.[2]

The Sword of Knowledge

The dragon of ignorance has three heads and three tails. 

You can slay it with the sword of knowledge by chopping off all of its heads and all of its tails. 

With one stroke of the sword, you can chop off either one head, two heads, one tail, or two tails.

But the dragon is hard to slay !! 

  • If you chop off one head, a new one grows in its place. 
  • If you chop off one tail, two new tails replace it. 
  • If you chop off two tails, one new head grows. 
  • If you chop off two heads,  nothing grows.

Show how to slay the dragon of ignorance.

* * *

A SNAP math fair is remarkably adaptable to many different circumstances. If you are interested in learning about how you can incorporate a SNAP math fair into your own teaching environment, come to the BIRS workshop. You will meet teachers who have organized math fairs in their own schools. You will also meet a few mathematicians who have taught courses in which a math fair was key ingredient. 

As well, there will be math fair resources available, and the participants will be involved in puzzle-solving sessions.  

The BIRS workshop has room for about 20 participants, and it is oriented towards (but not limited to) K-9 teachers.

For more details about SNAP math fairs, visit the SNAP math fair site. And while you are there, take a look at the Gallery to see how students react.

For more information about the workshop, and who to contact, the link is here.

End notes

[1] The solving part is a crucial element of the math fair.  Ideally, students solve the puzzle by themselves. They are surprisingly persistent.

[2] I imagine the Sword of Knowledge puzzle would work with junior high or high school students. However, I once visited a SNAP math fair where two grade five students had solved it. Their teacher told me that they struggled with the problem but solved it after one of them grabbed a handful of pencils (tails) and erasers (heads).

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