Posts tagged math
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.

Big-Brained Superheroes vs. Winning


What you see here is the screen one of our 4th-grade Big-Brained Superheroes saw after beating DragonBox, the game we began playing during Washington State’s algebra challenge week. One of our favorite aspects of this success is how much exercise our young Big-Brained Superhero’s Persistence superpower got in the process. He faced no small number of challenges and frustrations during the game, but he just kept going. Even though the algebra challenge week had ended, he was determined to keep going until the end. And so he did.

Needless to say, we’re incredibly excited to see him so diligent in his Persistence superpower exercise. He set a goal, and he stuck to it until it was achieved. So, unalloyed success, right? Fourth-grade BBS FTW!

Well, there’s a catch. When our young hero hit the above screen and realized what “endless” meant, he wanted absolutely no part of this game anymore. He was done. Finis. No way was he going to participate in an “endless” journey. No goal—no game. End of story.

And this got us thinking about some of the problems associated with focusing so directly on outcomes. Outcomes are, by nature, limited. And once you reach them, why keep striving? Of what value is process? And can all successes be planned and measured? Not to mention…Sense of Adventure, anyone?

It goes without saying that Persistence is good. Winning is good. Mastering algebra is good. But, as every good superhero adventure series teaches us, the challenges most worthy of our superpowers are those that aren’t, by nature, limited. And those in which our mastery is endlessly questioned.

Big-Brained Superheroes vs. The Babylonians

You’re reading the world’s first Big-Brained Superheroes Club guest blog post!  What a pleasure blogging is for me since I started volunteering for this wonderful program over a year ago.  Enough about me, and on with the blog posting!

What’s the deal with those darned Babylonians?  You see, algebra traces its history to the Babylonians, and the Big Brains have recently been tearing up the Algebra scene at Yesler Community Center.  



Yes, Big-Brained Superheroes are learning algebra as early as age 5 thanks, in part, to the Washington State Algebra Challenge.  It relies on an online game called DragonBox, which is designed to intuitively teach the mechanics of solving equations algebraic style via game levels involving icons and exploration.

In all seriousness, it took me just as long to figure out the mechanics of the Algebra Challenge games as it did for the young Big Brains.  Even longer, in fact, since they taught me how to play.  At first, I was a bit perplexed by how it taught Algebra at all, but after playing for a while, the genius behind it became clear.  It works by teaching the mechanics in game form and then gradually begins to use the algebra equations we’re accustomed to seeing.  By the time you get to the levels containing traditional equations, you’re well-versed in the process of applying the same treatments to both sides of an equation in order to isolate your variables.

Check it out, and get your Algebra on!

An Amiable Amalgam

Unsurprisingly, today was a busy day in The Big-Brained Superheroes Club. And yet, it was all surprisingly simple. Strangely self-organized, even. Our big-brained superheroes showed up and just…kind of…did stuff. Such as…





Multi-person Math:


More Math:




And such. Microscopes and other miscellany even made their appearances. And while nothing necessarily noteworthy or grandiose happened, today left an unusual impression. Sometimes simplicity is sublime.

Of the Things We Have Yet to Figure Out


So much has been going on here at BBSC HQ that we might as well just begin in the middle. Engineer Zero kindly stopped by on Monday to teach us about his Scratch-programmable Grisbot. We’ve been checking out our Anomaly graphic novel. And did we mention electronics? Lots and lots of electronics. Oh yeah…and of course there’s March Mathness:

Maybe it’s a reaction to all the hustle and bustle, but rather than spending the bulk of our time this week documenting who did what and when, we’ve mostly been meditating on a larger, more abstract question: Just how does all this happen?

A March Mathness example:
On Monday, we encountered a free range (aka unofficial) big-brained superhero roaming the halls of Yesler Community Center and stopped to ask him to solve a few math problems for us. In the course of our brief discussion, we offhandedly mentioned that we were part of The Big-Brained Superheroes Club, which met on Mondays and Wednesdays from 4 to 6pm. After a few more math questions and responses and thanking him for his time, he responded, “OK. I’ll see you on Wednesday!”

Huh. We were not expecting this. If we were planning to seek out new recruits to the club, “ask random kids to solve a bunch of complex math problems” probably wouldn’t have been our go-to course of action. And yet, recruit a new member we did as that particular young BBS proved when he exclaimed, “I told you I’d be here!”, when we met him for the second time on Wednesday afternoon. And he was actually just one of three new recruits (two boys, one girl) resulting from this week's Hallway Math event so far.

So…ummm…What the heck?

Obviously, we’re still meditating…

Let the Mathness Begin!


Our first-ever March Mathness* is getting off to a bit of a late start…blog-wise, that is. As far as big-brained superheroes are concerned, we started celebrating promptly on March 1st with an entirely impromptu big-brained superhero gathering in the halls of Yesler Community Center for Hallway Math. Also, we already have an exemplary (also entirely impromptu) piece of Art and Math on which we can look for inspiration. So, regardless of all other challenges, we’re taking these as promising signs. Our first-ever March Mathness is going to be mathtacular!

But first, you may be wondering…um…what? What is March Mathness? So glad you asked. We’re dedicating the entire month of March (which includes Pi Day, of course) to finding ways to incorporate math into all of our Big-Brained Superheroes Club meeting activities. True, we already do Hallway Math, Mathketball (the ever-evolving rules of which we’ll be documenting sometime soon), and JUMP Math. Besides which, we’ll soon be booting up AdaptedMind (kindly donated to us by the AdaptedMind folks) to provide even more math-portunities in the computer lab. But we know that there’s more math where all that came from.

For starters, we’ll definitely be engaging in all of our standard math-tivities (taking them up to eleven, even!). Plus, we’ll be adding more, more, more mathtivities to our repertoire. Beyond which, we’ll be looking for ways to uncover the hidden mathematical aspects of our seemingly non-math-oriented activities. And we’ll eventually end the month by documenting an entire week straight (Monday thru Friday) of Hallway Math. Not to mention, we’ve been chatting with other caring members of the Yesler community about the possibility of bringing math into other areas of our big-brained superheroes’ lives. So, without further ado…let’s let the mathness begin!

* While the Google suggests that we’re not the first to come up with the “March Mathness” idea, we’ll do what we can to be the punniest.

Meredith Wengermath, Steam, stem

The hands seen here adding up 0s and 1s* belong to one of our big-brained superhero 4th-graders. We love to see how this particular BBS recovers from her mistakes. Rather than getting flustered and frustrated, she remains calm, cool, and Persistent to the end. All the way up to a hundred.

* = This binary counter was designed and developed by one of our big-brained superhero volunteers who received high praise yesterday when one of our young BBSes, after a scrupulous examination of the apparatus, earnestly pronounced said volunteer to be “really good at electronics”.

The Kids in the Hall Do Math


“Can I have a math problem?” is, as we mentioned on Twitter recently, probably our favorite big-brained superhero FAQ. How this tradition got started we don’t recall, but we’ve pretty much given up on making it through the halls of Yesler Community Center without being stopped by this question at least once (mostly at least thrice). And having zero interest in looking a gift horse in the math, roll with it we do. Even if it means scheduling an extra 20 minutes for a trip to the bathroom.

Why do we love this question so much? Well, we know that number talk is important in our early years, and apparently, ready access to basic math knowledge correlates with success on the PSAT. But our love of this question goes much deeper than that. This question, for us, is all about our superpowers:

  1. Sense of Adventure: Anytime big-brained superheroes are eager to solve a problem, they’re exercising their Sense of Adventure. And it all begins with a Sense of Adventure.
  2. Kindness, Empathy, Teamwork: Somehow some way we’ve learned to use math as a means of communication. A point of connection. Contra approaches like this one, our hallway math is a group effort. We suspect this cooperative approach may be good for all our big-brained superheroes but most especially for our girls (who, BTW, are our most frequent inquisitors by far). 
  3. Critical Thinking, Creativity, Adaptability, and Persistence: Hallway math, sans pencil or paper, creates an interesting challenge for us. How difficult can we make it for our big brains and still keep it achievable? How far can we test their boundaries and even their sense of themselves? How can we, ever so briefly and subtly, blow their minds? While it may sound ridiculous, these really are the questions we ask ourselves. All in this quintessentially transitory space.

We love these indisputable reminders that thinking, learning, and connecting can and should be happening everywhere, maybe even especially on the way to the bathroom.

It All Begins with a Sense of Adventure...

A BBS Precipitates

So, in early October—in spite of extreme busyness—a couple of us exercised our Sense of Adventure and attended a talk by math wizard Steven Strogatz at Seattle’s Town Hall. Toward the end of the talk, our Empowerment superpower was revved up enough for us to be the first at the microphone to ask Mr. Strogatz for his opinion on the state of math education in the US today and whether he had any good resource suggestions for our young Big-Brained Superheroes. After a lengthy, vigorous, and thorough condemnation of current common practices, he mentioned that, sadly, he did not have any alternative resource suggestions. However, at the conclusion of the scheduled event, an attendee seated in front of us turned around and gave a lengthy, vigorous, and thorough commendation of a program we had never before heard of: JUMP Math.

At this point, contacting the folks at JUMP Math was a no-brainer. Our Sense of Adventure and Empowerment superpowers had already been developed enough to enable us to put finger to keyboard and shoot off a simple email: Can you help us?*. Apparently, yes, yes they could. The JUMP Math staff connected us with a Seattle-based donor who would generously fund JUMP Math’s introduction into The Big-Brained Superheroes Club. Because math is a core subject for us and one with which many of our BBSes seem to struggle, this development is indescribably momentous. In short, we’re so excited that we’re feeling punny enough to JUMP for joy!  Thank you, Steven Strogatz, Lara who sat in front of us, folks at JUMP Math, Seattle-based donor, and of course, Sense of Adventure, Empowerment, and as always, Kindness!

Obviously, our next challenge is determining which Pointer Sisters song is more appropriate for this occasion: I’m So Excited or JUMP for My Love?…decisions decisions…

OK, puns over. Here’s an excellent JUMP Math video as some small recompense:

* For some of us big-brained superheroes—big and small—asking for help is one of the more daunting challenges in life. We see this every day in our young BBSes, and we see it in ourselves. So, be prepared for it to become a bit of a recurring theme around these parts.