Our Math Problem


Big-Brained Superheroes are creators of things. Whether those things be Space Needles or Circuit Trees, video games or airplanes, some version of math almost always comes into the equation. That’s just the way it is. And that’s where our math problem begins.

While some Big-Brained Superheroes are perfectly comfortable doing the math wherever they find it, we have found that a nontrivial number of Brains freak out in certain contexts. And though math anxiety is something we recognize and work on (as we do reading anxiety), this seems different. Many of these Brains seem perfectly comfortable doing the math in the worksheets they bring in from school. But when facing the exact (exact exact) same problems in the context of real physical things, they freeze up—as if they’re being asked to speak a completely different language without ever having learned the words. Is it us?

After we reward for Sense of Adventure to keep them from running out the door, we typically break the problem down within the context of the project we’re working on. In the process, these Brains seem to be learning how to solve the problem all over again. Just as if they had never seen it before. If we have time, we try to connect the problem-solving process we go through directly back to their homework. But though we try, it doesn’t always jive. The connection doesn’t seem to deep-down feel real. Maybe it is us.

The flip side of this equation is when Big Brains solve math problems for us that they don’t seem to be solving in other contexts. A surprisingly common example:

Volunteer Sidekick: “What’s 15 divided by five?”
Big-Brained Superhero: “I don’t know division.”
Volunteer Sidekick: “OK, how many fives are there in 15?”
Big-Brained Superhero: “Three.”
Volunteer Sidekick: “Congratulations, you just learned division.”

Obviously, these Big Brains aren’t just learning division—they’re learning that they’ve already learned division. Or maybe they’re not. Maybe the math our Brains do in The BBSC and the math they do in other contexts never become the same math to them. And this is where our math problem currently sits.

As we say, Big-Brained Superheroes are creators of things. They can’t not be. And there’s no getting around doing math in the process. But the math they’re doing in other contexts doesn’t seem to them to be the same math they’re doing in The BBSC even though it is the exact same math (or so it seems to us). Our solution to this problem so far has been to develop “BBSC math”— a collection of activities and stuff we make or find on the market that we think helps facilitate learning the math we need to use when creating things.

Obviously, this solution is incomplete. At best. For starters, we have the obvious structural inefficiencies—the multiplication of time, materials, effort, etc. going into solving multiple problems that are really the same problem. More importantly, however, we have concerns about the strain this dissonance puts on our Brains. They’ve already got what must feel like a million divergent cultural, social, and intellectual demands on them; do they really need more? For math?

At present, our answer is yes. But we admit—we have a problem.